Water treatment plant builds higher defenses against future floods

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

About 8 inches of rain from Hurricane Irene sent rivers over their banks in Bridgewater. Power failed briefly at the American Water treatment plant, the source of water for a million New Jersey residents. Bob Schaefer, senior director of central operations at the facility, remembers hunkering down inside, seven years ago.

“It was some very tense moments there, and we had our prior floodgates closed and we had employees in here,” said Shaeffer.

There’s a flood wall around the plant, and as Irene came through, right on the other side, a river of water was raging and rising.

Plant operator Oleg Kostin described the scene.

“During Hurricane Irene, we came within one inch of coming over the existing wall that we had there. Literally one inch,” he said. “There’s actually a picture. We call it the money shot, where there’s a ruler up against the top of the wall and it was within one inch of coming over the top of that wall.”

American Water needed to better protect its vulnerable assets, and 18 months ago launched a $37 million project to harden its perimeter. Homeland Security has declared this plant Tier One critical infrastructure.

“This is an incredibly critical facility. It serves approximately 1 in 9 residents in the state directly,” said David Zimmer, executive director of the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. “If and when this facility ever goes down, it impacts a billion dollars worth of economic activity — over a billion dollars.”

Monday, there was a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of several flood protection upgrades.

The utility built new flood walls, protected its power plant with a berm and pump system, and doubled the height of its perimeter wall defenses to 48 feet above flood stage for a catastrophic event.

“It’s a 500-year frequency flood, so that’s based on the hydraulic analysis of the basin here, the watershed,” said American Water Project Manager Manoj Patel.

It’s a trend. Climatologists note eight of the top 10 Jersey floods have occurred since 1996 — including Hurricane Floyd — which completely flooded the plant. Back then, it had no flood walls.

“The Coast Guard came and evacuated us out. I was the last person to leave,” Kostin said.

“These are extreme events, so you need to be patient as a climatologist to be able to attribute them to any one thing. But they do fit a pattern of climate change, a more extreme environment,” said state climatologist David Robinson

American Water had considered even stronger defenses for a thousand-year flood, but the cost proved prohibitive. They’re hoping this is enough for now.

“It’s a real big sigh of relief, believe me, because if the water comes over the top of this, I think I’ll retire,” Kostin said.

Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim, III.