By Brian Oram and Amy Lee

Water supplies and systems can be affected by a number of adverse events. A “crisis” can range from a personal household leaky water line to a major community-wide toxic spill incident from a train derailment to a natural disaster that contaminates groundwater.

A crisis includes two components:
1. The event itself, and
2. The reaction to the event.

You can have an event that at the surface appears minor, but the response from the client, user, community, or customer may be highly charged because of emotional distress, fear, uncertain future, financial issues, lack of trust, or other concerns.

Responding to a Crisis
When a water professional is involved in responding to a water crisis, keep in mind the following steps.

  1. Incident Management. What is the factual, evidence-based information about the incident? Who are the stakeholders? What support might the stakeholders need, and how are stakeholders responding?
  2. Prepare, Learn, and Fill in the Gaps. Compile the available facts and information. Are you lacking information and how can you obtain this information? Have you reviewed all evidence-based information available? Have you also reviewed anecdotal reports to understand the emotional climate around the problem in order to be sensitive to the community response?
  3. Tools and Resources. Is there an existing plan of approach to address the situation? What are the current
    resources and capability of the local water professionals, testing facilities, and other needed skills? What other individuals, groups, or organizations can assist or have already been engaged?
  4. Partnering. Have experts been involved to fill in the technical, communication, or resource gaps? There should be a clear delineation of responsibilities, hierarchy, and a communications plan to encompass all engaged parties.
  5. Tread Lightly and Communicate. Develop a short-term plan and a potential long-term approach. Communicate this approach to the stakeholders in plain language.

Incident Management and Response Planning
In preparing a plan or approach, make sure you have adequate resources and expertise. It is critical to know the resources and capability of your team, because the team may need some outside expertise or assistance, such as: a certified water quality testing laboratory, an expert in corrosion, a licensed plumber, a certified well driller, a professional geologist, or a professional engineer.

Plans should be reviewed by a neutral third-party expert and/or other partners. Any plan that is developed should allow for more than one response or treatment. The implementation of the plan should eliminate the crisis or problem, but it is important that the plan includes a mechanism to check if this result does occur.

When the team is ready, the plan with both a short-term plan of action and a long-term approach should be presented to the stakeholders.

An Example of Putting It into Practice
While working at the University Research Laboratory, my team worked on a project where a household individual had high blood levels of aluminum. The initial water testing suggested the problem may be caused by a combination of a very low pH and microbiologically induced corrosion in the home water system. Following specific testing of the well water that included a first flush and flushed sampling in accordance with industry standard methods, the team confirmed the system had significant problems with corrosive water, poor quality fixtures and system components, and corrosion.

The team recommended the installation of a water treatment system and system upgrades to control the nuisance bacteria, neutralize the water, and reduce the level of aluminum and other cations like arsenic, iron, and manganese. Upon hiring a water treatment professional and installation of the system, the treatment system was a success and post installation testing and monitoring showed the system was providing water to the homeowner that met or exceeded the drinking water primary and secondary standards.

The only problem was that even after the water-treatment system installation, the blood aluminum levels for the individual did not decrease. When the hypothesis failed, we met again with the homeowner at which time I finally observed the fact that the individual was a big tea drinker and herbalist. We tested a series of unglazed cookware, herbal mixtures, and herbal teas and discovered that her favorite unglazed tea pot and tea set leached a significant amount of aluminum and other metals. We recommended that she stop using this tea set. She did, and with time her levels of aluminum and other metals finally decreased.

This example illustrates the five steps of responding to a crisis. The initial incident management involved learning who was affected and what the problem was (elevated levels of aluminum in the blood). Information about the current water system was gathered and tested. Testing and water treatment professionals were included to take advantage of their expertise. A plan was developed and implemented.

Most importantly, the results of the project were tested to see if they delivered lower levels of aluminum for the individual. When the new treatment system did not solve the problem, it was necessary to go back and review all the information to develop a new plan of intervention.

Be Prepared for a Crisis
In summary, a water professional should:

  • Properly educate and prepare their team for the work or conditions they may encounter.
  • Develop best practices based on industry standards to address how to respond to an event or incident.
  • Act like the professional and scientist they are. Review the data, collect additional information, and get the facts. Base recommendations on facts—not fear—and test to see if that recommendation upon implementation is working. If it is not working, be prepared to be open and honest with your client or the public. Use your professional experience to provide a plan to address the next best hypothesis.
  • Back up and supplement your team with other experts as needed. This could include partnering with local or national associations or with local or regional experts.
  • Plan communications carefully, focusing on facts, involving all stakeholders, and using plain language.

About the authors
Brian Oram is a licensed professional geologist, certified professional soil scientist, licensed well driller, and certified sewage enforcement officer. He conducts certified baseline water quality testing and trains water samplers in proper sampling and chain-of-custody practices. Oram is the owner of BF Environmental Consultants, Inc. and owns and maintains the portal.

Amy Lee is a ceramic arts enthusiast who does environmental and IT consulting. She holds a BS degree in environmental science with a geology minor and a master’s in computer systems analysis. She is one of the newest members of the Know Your H20 team.


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