BY ANDY TAYLOR
INDEPENDENCE — Independence city commissioners and city staff — appearing frazzled, sleepy, and unwashed — for several days, applauded Independence residents early Friday in resolving a water crisis that nearly shut down the community for a period of 48 hours.
Commissioners met in an emergency meeting at 7 a.m., to cancel the water emergencies that had been in place since last Tuesday.
The water crisis was resolved early Friday when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment notified city officials that water from the Verdigris River could be received through the city’s water treatment plant. The water treatment plant began receiving water at 1 a.m., Friday, almost 48 hours since the intake valve was shut due to contaminants that flowed into the river from a chemical fire in Neodesha on Tuesday.
The issue for Independence was not just the contaminant levels in the river but the potential loss of pressurization to the city’s water system. When the intake valve was closed at 4 a.m., Wednesday, the city’s only available water was contained within the water distribution system. Consumption was severely restricted in order to save enough water to keep the system pressurized at about 20 psi. Had that pressurization dropped to below 20 psi, then the water customers would have had a mandatory boil order and a prolonged period of testing until the water system could return to normalization pressurization standards.
By limiting — and sacrificing — water consumption on a week in which holiday gatherings were planned, Independence water customers were able to save enough water to keep the system above pressure.
City commissioners congratulated city staff and city residents for their collective efforts.
“You can’t require someone to not flush a toilet or to not take a shower,” said commissioner Leonhard Caflisch. “That decision has to come from within a person’s own heart and soul. Independence residents understood the call to conserve the water in order to keep the system above pressure. They willed themselves to solve he problem.”
Commissioners also applauded the efforts of city employees — many of whom had not been asleep in two days.
Terry Lybarger, city superintendent, said he received the call from KDHE shortly after midnight that water could be pulled into the city’s water treatment plant for treatment.
“At first, I thought it was another phone call with bad news,” Lybarger told the Montgomery County Chronicle. “But, it was the guy from KDHE who is in charge of water testing. He was yelling in my ear, “The water is good! Turn the plant on! Turn the plant on!”
As soon as Lybarger got the news from KDHE that the water pressure was saved and the water contaminant level was low enough to warrant treatment in the city’s water plant, then the city’s police and fire departments went into overdrive. By 3 a.m., they were on the streets with fliers in hand, distributing the information to businesses and industries and even giving the news to a few sleepy-eyed residents who were awake in the early morning hours. City staff made the announcement official at 1 a.m., via the city’s website, and media outlets disseminated the information by 6:30 a.m., to a community that was awakening to the news that they could finally wash, cook, flush, and drink.
Commissioners said there was deep irony in the water crisis falling on a week of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“People always turn on their water faucets without thinking anything about how that water got there in the first place,” said Caflisch. “I believe no one will ever again turn on their water tap without being thankful for our water.”