By Chelsea Miller, Lisa Roberson and Evan Goodenow
Frozen intake pipes that draw water from Lake Erie for Avon Lake Municipal Utilities wreaked havoc on the water supply Wednesday and prompted Lorain County commissioners to declare the county in a state of emergency for the first time in at least five years.
As of late Wednesday, officials in Lorain, Medina and Cuyahoga counties were keeping a wary eye on the situation, fearful that the utility’s more than 200,000 customers soon would be without water. The stores that were open were seeing a rush as residents bought up bottled water. And school districts, many of which had yet to return from winter break because of the extreme cold earlier this week, were canceling or preparing to cancel classes yet again in the event that the situation wasn’t rectified by this morning.
Todd Danielson, chief utilities executive for Avon Lake Municipal Utilities, which supplies water to 206,706 residents living in a seven-county area, informed customers of the potentially dire situation Wednesday as the company worked to remove slush-like frazil ice that was obstructing its two intake pipes, which are 1,800 and 2,200 feet long.
At 11:45 p.m. Wednesday, Avon Lake fire Lt. John Rietz said that the department was in an “impaired water supply situation.” Rietz said the only water remaining in the city was in two water towers.
The department was relying on neighboring departments to supply it with water, he said.
Avon Lake Mayor Greg Zilka said an alert that went out at 11 a.m. told residents to conserve water, but by 5 p.m. the situation worsened to where, during a public meeting at Avon Lake High School, he told residents in attendance not to drink the water, shower or bath until the emergency had been resolved.
When asked if he thought the first conservation alert was downplayed to residents and customers, Zilka said no.
“We really thought it would be an easy fix and resolved quickly,” he said. “As the day went on, it became clear the problem would not resolve itself as quickly as we would like.”
Danielson said a dual approach is being used to fix the problem with the frozen pipes. Chemicals are being placed into the system to help break up the ice, and the system is pushing and pulling water at a greater intensity to agitate the ice.
Frazil ice is a collection of loose, needle-shaped ice crystals in the water, resembling slush. It has less buoyancy than traditional ice and settles on the lake bottom, where the intake pipes are.
The brutally cold weather, which reached a low of minus 11 on Tuesday, as well as the lake conditions, led to the frazil ice, Danielson said.
The facility draws and treats roughly 16 million gallons of water a day. Just about 3 million gallons were being processed at 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to Tom Kelley, Lorain County Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security director.
Avon Lake Municipal Utilities supplies water to Sheffield Lake, Sheffield, Avon, North Ridgeville, Medina and Brunswick in Medina County and portions of the Lorain County Rural Water Authority.
Danielson said those areas could see a decreased supply, depending on how much water they receive from other entities and how much they have in their respective reserve tanks. Some cities have issued emergency alerts for residents to conserve water.
State of emergency
The shortage led to Lorain County on Wednesday being declared in a state of emergency by county commissioners. The disaster declaration would allow Ohio Army National Guard to truck in water if needed, Kelley said at a special meeting.
“This is a proactive approach to be able to get any assets above our capabilities in here in case we need them,” Kelley told commissioners Ted Kalo, Lori Kokoski and Tom Williams. “Our first priorities right now are, obviously, the safety of citizens, fire suppression and drinking water.”
Kelley, who urged affected residents to use water sparingly, said the declaration was strictly precautionary, but the Guard and other state agencies were ready to help.
“They’re all ready to come running if they have to,” he said. “They understand the enormity of what could possibly happen.”
Chiefs from various Lorain County fire departments also met Wednesday to prepare for the worst.
Avon Fire Chief Frank Root said indications were given by Avon Lake Municipal Utilities officials that the problem would not be rectified within 24 hours. Still, Root was optimistic that the situation wouldn’t disrupt services provided by fire departments, as the departments worked together to secure 10 additional fire tankers, to be located across the county if needed.
“The situation hasn’t been getting any better, and we’ve been trying to address that,” he said. “As of right now, we have water in the city, but for how long, I don’t know.”
The city of Avon, which receives its water solely from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities, issued a water usage ban Wednesday afternoon, after new Avon Mayor Bryan Jensen was informed that Avon Lake was reaching critically low levels.
“Avon Lake has warned us we’re at a critical stage. They told us we could reach the point at any moment,” he said.
Jensen said the city was working to connect to its neighbors in North Ridgeville, which receives water from Elyria as well.
The water shortage prompted some businesses to shut down in the Avon, according to Jensen.
On Wednesday, EMH Health and Fitness Center in Avon closed at 4:30 p.m. in an effort to conserve water. The center will reopen when the water emergency is resolved.
Bottled water was provided to patients at EMH Avon Health Campus for drinking so water could be conserved for other medical needs, said Kristen Davis, hospital spokeswoman. After the fitness center closed, the emergency room remained open.
The Richard E. Jacobs Health Center, 33100 Cleveland Clinic Blvd, kept its emergency department open, but surgeries and procedures will be rescheduled or moved to another Cleveland Clinic location. Patient appointments were canceled until 10 a.m. today, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Avon Lake Family Town Centre also canceled patient appointments until 10 a.m., and Avon Pointe Family Health Center will close today and Friday, with patients being rescheduled to nearby facilities.
Upon news of the shortage, Avon resident Tom Sfiligoj rushed to BJ’s Wholesale Club to stock up on water. Sfiligoj said he hadn’t been affected yet, but he thought it would be best to stay on the safe side.
“We’ve had power outages, but we’ve never had anything like this,” he said. “My sister-in-law who lives in Avon Lake said there is no water there; everybody bought all the water from the stores.”
Julie Short, of Avon, said her family has been conserving water by not cleaning dishes, doing laundry or taking baths.
“We have bottled water we can use for later. If we get to the point that we have no water, we will go to a family or friends that live elsewhere to shower, etc. For now, it’s not that bad, so if we don’t need to use the water, we won’t,” she said.
The ongoing water emergency in Lorain County could also mean another day off from school for local students.
Columbia Schools was closed today because of water supply problems.
Other schools were waiting to see if service was restored in the morning before they made a decision.
Avon Schools Superintendent Mike Laub said Wednesday the Water Department would update the district on the water situation at 5 a.m. today. If there is no water, the district will send an alert message and notify news outlets that school will be closed. If there is water, school will be open and there will be no message from the district.
“We understand that the uncertainty of not knowing until the morning makes planning difficult,” Laub said in a post on the district’s website. “Hopefully this message will enable you to put contingency plans in place if we do need to close.”
Other communities, such as Grafton and North Ridgeville, were optimistic that water would be restored before the issue became problematic.
“Right now, we’re holding our own,” North Ridgeville Mayor Dave Gillock said.
Around 5 p.m., Gillock said the city’s 2-million-gallon water tower was slightly down from the normal amount of 35 to 40 feet. He said the plan is to pump more water into the tower if it dipped down to 20 feet with supplies from the city of Elyria.
Grafton Mayor Megan Flanigan said the village has its own water holding tank, which was full Wednesday night. She asked that residents conserve water but said the village is not shutting off its water.
Elyria and Wellington have been supplying some water to the Rural Water Authority, which was notified of the problem at the Avon Lake facility at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. By 9:30 a.m., it immediately began urging its customers to only use water for drinking, cooking, personal hygiene and flushing toilets, and businesses were asked to limit operations.
Rural Lorain County Water Authority General Manager Tim Mahoney said the problem has dropped water pressure in the northern part of Rural Water’s service area. He said that water service had stopped in Olmsted Falls and Columbia Township, affecting between 3,000 and 4,000 customers.
“In the 40-year history of Rural Water what we have going on now is by far the worst disaster on our water system we’ve ever had,” Mahoney said.
In addition to taking water from Elyria, Rural Water was also looking for additional resources by having workers dig around Lorain County Joint Vocational School this morning to tap into a water line from Oberlin to further boost capacity.
But Mahoney also warned that the ongoing problem would lead to more areas running out of water in the coming hours.
Avon Lake Municipal Utilities did not provide a timeline of when the pipes would begin working again to full capacity.
Avon Lake was planning to send divers down to deal with the problem and also was using excavators to dig holes on the beach near the water plant that could be used as sumps from which water could be drawn out of and pumped into the plant.
Danielson said his hope is that warming temperatures speed things along.
The National Weather Service in Cleveland predicted temperatures should reach a high in the upper 40s on Saturday.
“We’re working with the other jurisdictions as best we can,” Danielson added. “We’re asking customers to hold off on unnecessary water usage during this time.”
Reporter Brad Dicken contributed to this story.
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