CNMI Utility Engineers: Fix Water Distribution System Before Acquiring New Treatment Facility

Chief Engineer gets scolding from CUC Board for unauthorized release of ‘White Paper’

By Junhan B. Todiño

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, July 15, 2016) – Acquiring a new water-treatment facility, which the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. board is considering, is not among the recommendations of the CUC water and wastewater engineering division.

“We feel [that other] needs should be addressed first, before moving toward a water-treatment facility to improve water quality. To treat water only to lose it through leaks and theft is a very expensive decision,” according to the division’s three-page white paper provided to the Office of the Governor and the Legislature.

The head of CUC’s water and wastewater engineering division, John Riegel, was scolded by the board for releasing the white paper without the board’s approval. Variety was told that it was the governor who asked the water and wastewater engineering division to submit its recommendations.

On Wednesday, CUC sued Riegel over a contract dispute.

One of the recommendations of the white paper was “immediate action, consistent with the Master Plan recommendation, to address the most essential projects toward 24-hour water for Saipan.”

At a recent CUC board meeting, Riegel mentioned these recommendations, but the CUC board members headed by chairwoman Adelina Roberto said a reverse-osmosis processing facility, as recommended by the lt. governor’s consultant, could be the “solution” to the island’s water problems.

According to the white paper, however, there is a need to strengthen the foundation of the water system first before other improvement can be built.

These include the installation of working meters at all service connections; detecting and repairing all leaks throughout the system; unifying engineering and operations; allocating a budget for a preventive maintenance program; completing minor upgrades; drilling new wells to replace deteriorated wells; replacing old deteriorated pipes; and evaluating well pump sizes and settings.

Installing working meters should be achieved this summer, the white paper stated.

It also noted that “the billing system needs…an internal review, to ensure that the billing records accurately reflect accounts and associated meters, and ensuring that all meters are registered.”

Meter readers must read each meter each billing cycle, it added.

It said the engineering division is currently leading the charge in leak detection and repair through two grants, one from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the other from the Bureau of Reclamation.

But the funding amount for those projects is only minimal compared to the amount of leak detection and repair needed, the white paper stated.

“The leak-detection program is carefully planned and systematically executed and is being very effective. However, at the current funding level and amount of resources dedicated to leak detection is limited and completing this task will take a long time.”

If “significant funds could be provided for leak detection, finding and repairing leaks could be done quicker, arresting the significant amount of water loss throughout the system.”

According to the white paper, a reduction of water loss will reduce operating costs and enable the provision of 24-hour water.

The engineering division, moreover, must work hand-in-hand with operations to properly manage and operate the system.

“Engineering should be integral with operations and any system alterations or operational changes should be concurred by engineering to maximize service. Engineering should be tasked with the effort to optimize system operations and ensure the system is operated in the most efficient manner. Operations should follow the recommendations from engineering.”

Concerning the allocation for preventive maintenance, the white paper said there are many things that must be done on a regular basis to keep the water facilities operating properly.

In recent years, it added, due to budgetary constraints, the preventive-maintenance program has faltered because adequate funding for replacement materials and staff does not exist.

“Uncollected revenue is a key component of this lack of funds,” the white paper stated.

During the restoration following Typhoon Soudelor, “operations and engineering discovered many small upgrades to the water system that could have a significant impact, such as replacing broken valves, installing new air release valves, replacing undersized water lines, replacing hydraulic control valves, and similar ancillary work.” Most of those items will improve pressure and flow, the white paper added.

In addition, “many existing wells are old and the casing has served its useful life. The casings are corroded and are failing, yielding an unusable well” which must be replaced.

“We are developing an EPA funded project to replace approximately six wells, but additional funding is needed to complete approximately six wells per year.”

The white paper stated that much of the water system is very old and consists of asbestos pipe and galvanized iron pipe.

The condition of those pipes is poor and many leaks exist because of their age and condition, it added.

“There are numerous projects identified in the Master Plan to replace this pipe in several villages. Replacing sections of old pipe will significantly reduce the amount of leakage realized by the system.”

Funding the project to replace those sections is essential to achieving 24-hour water and minimizing losses, the white paper stated.

To ensure that pumps are properly sized for the well capacity, and over-pumping, which draws excess salt water or lowers the water table, does not occur, each well should be evaluated and its pump replaced if not properly sized, the white paper added.

It said the engineering division is planning to engage a consultant to perform this large task this year.

The engineering division also presented an estimated budget of $56.5 million to fund its recommendations that would allow CUC to make rapid progress to eliminate leaks and achieve 24-hour water.

The engineering division also sees the need to hire a permanent CUC executive director, saying “the position is vital to the success of the utility.”

“A fully qualified and permanent executive director is needed immediately per Stipulated Order #1. An experienced and knowledgeable executive director will provide the leadership necessary to the success of the utility in these challenging times.”

It also noted the need to hire a division manager for operations.

“It is essential to the operation of the water system that a fully qualified and experienced person from the water industry be hired without delay. This position is critical for the successful operation of the water system and as the link between engineering and operations. The operations management team is overloaded and suffering because of the absence of a permanent division manager.”

In related news, Variety learned that CUC has about $17 million to spend by August 2017.

“This is broken down to multiple projects that each engineer has either currently in design, out for bid, or in construction,” a source said. “John has some of these projects. If EPA feels that CUC won’t be able to finish the funding by August 2017, they will most likely pull the funding which may severely jeopardize any future funding. The engineering department’s payroll is paid for by EPA.”

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