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For Cordova, 40 inches of rain in 3 weeks is nothing unusual

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times

CORDOVA -- Undoubtedly, this month's storms in Cordova would have made headlines and front pages in most big cities of the Lower 48. Last summer, Hurricane Irene hit New York City with winds of up to 60 mph and four to eight inches of rain. A multitude of messages and advice regarding security measures were relayed by the city's vibrant media.

New Yorkers, advised to stay at home, started to affix their windows with big X's and asterisks made out of duct tape. Hours before the first rains even began to fall the city water bottles and canned food were swiped from grocery stores by anxious residents, leaving rows of shelves empty. Hurricane Irene was on her way.

By the time it reached the city streets, hurricane Irene had morphed into a "tropical storm."

Here in Cordova, the rain has been dominating the weather forecast since the end of August. In a little more than three weeks the weather station at the Orca Power Plant measured more than 40 inches of rain. Last week, an impressive 17 inches of rain fell in two days, raising the water level of the Eyak River close to flood stage.

For locals, who saw 18 inches of rain fell in a single day in 2006, this was nothing more than a storm. For the city however, every inch of rain is a reminder of the urgent need to replace its wastewater system.

Although the month seemed particularly rainy this year, meteorologists say there was nothing unusual about it. After all, Cordova is nestled in the heart of the Chugach, and is the northernmost point of the West Coast temperate rain forest.

Still, city and state officials said they were on the look out, as a situation can rapidly deteriorate in the region and more rain was expected to fall. "If it continues, this is when we start to become worried," said Meadow Bailey, a Regional Public Information Officer with the Department of Transportation, as she looked at the weather forecast for Seward and Mat-Su, which suffered more severe flooding, as well as Valdez and Denali Highway.

The Cordova Electric Cooperative was probably one of the most seriously impacted financially by the storms, as it had to shut its hydro electric project for four days, costing the company $80,000. Small portions of the Power Creek road were washed out, making it difficult for the Electric Cooperative to access the plant and make repairs.

The high flows of water meant that a lot of gravel moved down the river, the storm also carried all sorts of debris that clogged the intake of the dam structure. While the hydro electric project was inoperative, the cooperative had to switch to diesel fuel instead.

Power Creek road was closed to the public last week as road workers were working on resurfacing parts of it. The team is however working closely with the Cooperative to ensure access to the hydro project. Each day plant technicians need to switch off the system for three hours in order to get rid of the accumulated debris.

The Alaskan Marine Highway reported a high number of cancelations due to high seas and winds. The company said it was too early to know how much it had lost, as cancelations sometimes generate new bookings for a later date. Passengers on their way to Cordova from the Valdez and Whittier ferry terminals were sometimes stuck for up to three days, as the seas were too dangerous to navigate safely.

Nichols' Front Door Store waited for its food supplies to be delivered by the ferry for a week but finally gave up as the situation was getting critical. It took a week for the food supplied to be delivered via ALM.

Wastewater treatment problem

For the city, the rain is a painful reminder of the costly repairs and possibly renewal its wastewater treatment system needs to undergo. A project which cost is estimated by the Department of Public Works at approximately $3.9 million.

The city's waste water treatment plant has a capacity of treating 30,000 gallons of water per hour, which is more than enough for Cordova's normal production of 8,000 gallons per hour. But with the recent rain, the department has observed with concern that 80,000 gallons of water was flowing through the system's pipes to the treatment plant.

"The pipes seem to have holes," said Public Words Director Moe Zamarron, showing a drawing detailing the system on his office's white board. "The water is treated, but we can't pull solids, such as grit and sand out of it."

The Federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, requires that all municipal wastewater treatment plants use primary treatment. But the ageing underground system in which the used water and sewage is traveling has made it impossible for the city to catch up. A few inches of rain in the day are enough for the department to be able to tell the difference, as rainwater infiltrates the 22 year-old pipes.

Zamarron said the Department of Environmental Conservation was aware of the problem and the Department of Public Works presented a step-by-step project to city council members on how to approach the problem. "Our biggest goal right now, is to locate the leaks, using cameras and electrical scanners," explained Zamarron.

Once the leaks are located, the department will carry out a number of tests and experiments to see which solution fits best: either a full replacement of the system with newer technologies, or a more temporary fix. Full replacement would be stronger, last longer and better resist the slight pressure resulting from the regions periodic earthquakes which is a factor weakening the pipes. A more temporary fix would consist of adding a coat of protection from inside the pipes.

This renovation project is on the very top of Zamarron's busy agenda. Other projects that require his attention are the solid waste project, which would relocate the burn pile near the bailer and create more recycling opportunities, the city must also meet new guidelines on drinking water by 2014 and pay back the money spent on snowpocalypse last winter.

"This is the bare bones of what we need to do," said Zamarron about his department's spending plan, which he recently presented to City Council.

Zamarron currently has gathered $565,000 in grant funds and is looking additional grant opportunities and possibly loans to cover the costs. Despite the big gap of more than $3 million needed to complete the project, Zamarron said he was optimistic as the Department of Environmental Conservation had expressed an interest in helping Cordova with the renewal of its wastewater treatment system.