MAY 27, 2010

Michael Martin, Water/Wastewater Supervisor, displays some of the butterfly valves he has had to obtain from eBay for the water treatment plant.

Orofino water plant, a shocking situation

By Alannah Allbrett

   Michael Martin, Supervisor at Orofino’s water plant, noticed one of the little frogs that live on the damp basement floor of the pump house. The frog was oddly stretched out/elongated. He reached for the frog and got shocked. The frog was being electrocuted – demonstrating the dangerous water/electrical situation in the building which brings water up from the Clearwater River and pumps it into the water filtration plant.


   Pre-1930’s, the downtown area of Orofino was supplied water by cisterns up above Canada Hill. The lower pump house (still in use) was built in 1940. Water went straight from the river to the town. The current water filtration plant was built in 1953. This fed only areas “that were at Orofino Creek level and not any residences on the hills or upper Michigan Avenue.”

   In 1971, a 1.0 million gallon reservoir and the present two 125 hp distribution pumps were added, enabling water to be pumped to residences on the hillsides and upper Michigan. In 1977, a backwash waste/sludge basin was installed. In 1988, a surface scatter turbidity meter was installed allowing continuous monitoring of the river turbity (particulate matter in the water).

   The present plant is operating with a lot of the equipment made when it was originally built. And replacement parts are no longer manufactured. Some parts Martin, and his crew, have had to build, adapt, or buy from salvage sales on eBay. Martin says, “The plant is currently being held together with bubblegum and eBay.”  The plant has control stations that look like something out of an old train station – operated with pulleys and cables on the main floor, that operate the valves below in the basement. Martin and the crew have adapted auto parts, Chevrolet brake cylinder boots, as adaptations on the valves. He admits that he and the other operators have had to become more of maintenance/machinists than operators to keep the plant functioning in the past few years. Martin said that the butterfly valves, which originally cost about $2,000, now cost approximately $12,000 and are hard to obtain.

The Process

   “Making water,” as those in the trade call it, is a complex art. Water is first pumped up from the river into the pump house where it is piped over to the water plant proper. There, the necessary chemicals are added to start the purifying process. Some of the chemicals create “flock” to bind the dirt particles, making them easier to filter out.

   The water goes into a sediment tank where it is allowed to settle. Then the water is forced through a wooden wall into a pool. It takes the water about three hours to cross 35 feet of the pool. It is then run through sand filters and sent into a basement holding tank where it is chlorinated and sent out to the city.


   In earlier times, water was pumped in, chlorine was added, and then it was considered ready for the customer. In the 1970’s the Safe Drinking Water Act passed. In the 1990’s standards were upgraded to a LT1 (long term enhanced water rule). By 2009, water had to meet an LT2 standard. Stringent water standards test for carcinogens, radon, radio-active elements, and bacteria levels. Other things tested for are metals, organic carbons, pH balances, alkalinity, and chlorine.

   The filtration plant has systems which will turn on an alarm and immediately shut the plant processes down if the turbity goes above 0.3. When the plant is operating at its best, turbidity usually measures .03. Water is tested on many levels before it is distributed.

   A discharge permit is required to return any water to the river. A separate backwash system is used to empty tanks and send it down to the discharge tanks and back into the river. When equipment is operating properly, it takes about 15 minutes to backwash 35,000 gallons of water. Some days, Martin reports, they have to do the process four or five times to accomplish water quality.

   Not only does the water plant have to meet stringent standards, but the city requires the operators to be at least a Class 2 operator. Martin is certified Class 3 in water, Class 3 in wastewater, Class 2 in distribution systems and Class 2 in collection systems. Besides Michael Martin, the plant has on staff, Joe Rintelen (operator/maintenance), Rick Bird (operator), and Jim Thornton (operator in training). The staff is continually training to update their skills.


   The system is monitored on a computer program, and whichever operator is on call, takes home a laptop to view what is occurring at the plant. Martin said it is not unusual for an operator to stay all night in the plant. And he’s slept on the concrete more than once when serious issues arose with the equipment.  

   I was shown the settling tanks where, water passes through gravel media for filtration. The floor of those tanks has deteriorated so badly that the media has broken through to the tank below it.

   The outside metal walls of the plant appear in deceivingly good condition. But the inner concrete walls are in such a state of deterioration that a wooden frame had to be built to attach the metal siding. The concrete is pulling off of the rebar.

   Martin said that they used to go down into the hatch below the pump room but he no longer allows workers to go down there. The concrete has deteriorated so much there that it would be hazardous for a person to be in that area should the walls implode from the outside water pressure.

   Martin regularly reports, (during City Council meetings) on the challenges at the water plant as well as the waste water treatment plant. City officials are well aware of the conditions and have been working diligently to seek solutions. Councilman Ron Banks was quoted as saying, “If this plant were a ship, I wouldn’t go to sea in it.” The Mayor, council members, and the city administrator, have been working for two and one-half years to try to purchase land for a new water plant adjacent to the river and the railroad tracks, but the process has been sidelined by the railroad.

Money lost

   Due to constant water leakage, it is estimated that the city loses $14,000 worth of marketable water each year as it leaks back into the river.

   Next week, The Clearwater Tribune will bring you part two of this story, a report by City Administrator, Rick Laam, what is needed, and what steps are being taken to build a new water treatment plant. Be sure to view the website for additional photos in full-color:

This photograph shows the main pipe, in the pump house, that sends water from the Clearwater River to the water treatment plant in Orofino. The pipe is visibly corroded and can no longer be repaired.


Michael Martin, Water/Wastewater Supervisor shows one of the little frogs that makes his home on the concrete floor in the pump house. At an earlier date, Martin picked up one of the frogs and received an electrical shock doing so. The frog had been electrocuted.


This corroded box, raining down debris and moisture, is located directly above the electrical controls for the main water treatment plant. One can pull material off of it with a finger.


Michael Martin stoops next to one of two control panels that control the valves that release water into a sediment tank in the basement below. The equipment is original to the plant which was built in 1953. Parts are no longer made for this cable system. The staff has had to modify automotive parts to fix leaking valves.


Lifting the hatch lid in the pump house, Martin said it is no longer safe for a person to climb down into this area. The water pressure on the outside of crumbling cement walls may lead to them collapsing in the future.


Down the drain. An estimated $14,000 per year of treated; marketable water is leaked back into the Clearwater River.