By Richard Kerns
Tribune Staff Writer
KEYSER – Issuing "a great big thank you" to dozens of individuals, Keyser Mayor Randy Amtower Tuesday afternoon declared victory in the weeklong, all-hands-on-deck effort to resolve a crisis that threatened to cripple water service and fire protection for 15,000 customers of the city's water system.
With welcome rain replenishing the city's newly dredged and expanded reservoir beside the water treatment plant – following a days-long emergency pumping operation from the nearby Potomac River -- the mayor lifted the mandatory water conservation order while keeping in place a voluntary conservation request.
"I feel we're out of the woods, we made it through," the mayor said at an afternoon press conference in City Hall. "We got hit with a situation, we went into action and we dealt with it."
More than just the rain, the city has better positioned itself for a possible future dry spell by greatly expanding the capacity of the reservoir at the water plant. Where the water level previously was about 8 inches deep for roughly 100 yards, it is now about 4 feet deep. The mayor estimated that 625 cubic yards were removed from the dam area Monday night, with more dredging set for last night.
The crisis began a week ago when, in the face of dangerously low water levels in New Creek, the city imposed the mandatory conservation order. The crisis was precipitated by ongoing renovation work at the city's main reservoir, Dam Site 14, which is slated to remain offline through the end of the year.
With no rain in the forecast, Amtower realized that conservation alone probably would not preserve the dwindling supplies. In addition to water for faucets and flushes, the situation imperiled firefighting ability. At the high point of the crisis, a plan was developed with area volunteer fire companies to fight fires in the city's service area with tankers, as use of the hydrants would have quickly depleted the city's minimal reserves.
"The potential for losing major structures in the city was very great during this period," the mayor said.
After declaring a water emergency coupled with the mandatory conservation order, Amtower began what would become a nearly week-long effort to provide emergency water supplies by pumping water from the Potomac River more than a mile upstream to the treatment plant.
After contacting the governor's office in a bid to secure emergency funding – which bore fruit with a $50,000 grant – Amtower moved to secure a pump and piping, as well as the permission to use them.
The crisis unfolded on a dual track, with city officials working both on the logistics of the unprecedented project, and the numerous regulatory approvals needed to allow such work to happen. Among the agencies working with the city were the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and even the Maryland Department of Transportation, which provided an emergency permit that allowed dredging equipment to be moved from Barton, Md. to the city.
Page 2 of 2 - Heaping praise on all of the many parties involved, Amtower said state and federal officials moved bureaucratic mountains to allow the project to proceed in emergency fashion. "You have to have contacts to get around these situations...," the mayor said. "Things that normally take 24 hours took one or two. Things that take two weeks were cut down to two or three days."
Reading from a list of officials at all levels of government who made the project a reality, Amtower described a team effort that involved state and federal legislators, county officials, and their counterparts in Maryland, including officials from Allegany County, the city of Cumberland, and the town of Lonaconing, which saved Keyser thousands of dollars by providing piping it had used a decade ago during a similar water crisis. Volunteer firefighters from Keyser and New Creek also played a critical role.
"When you look at this list, there are just so many people who helped," the mayor said.
Amtower reserved his strongest praise for the city's workforce, which contributed across the board, from City Hall to public works. Many employees worked 20 hours straight, and a few worked more than 24 hours. City crews, including Councilmen Clint Faulk and Herman Judy, were an integral part of laying the pipe in the New Creek streambed, a project that began 6 a.m. Saturday and wrapped up 20 hours later at 2 a.m. Sunday.
"The pipeline was laid with a host of people," the mayor said, noting critical involvement from representatives of Great Plains Industries, which provided the massive pump needed for the job, as well as Charleston-based Dunn Engineers, whose staff helped with the hydraulic calculations.
A complete listing of the individuals who contributed to the effort will appear on the Opinion page in Thursday's News Tribune.
Although he made no mention of it during Tuesday's press conference, Amtower was at the center of the entire effort, either delegating jobs to others, or doing them himself. Councilman Terry Liller compared the challenge to a military campaign, and noted the critical component of leadership provided by the mayor. "His tenaciousness, his bulldog attitude ... that's what really got us through," the Councilman said. "He just did a super job."
City Administrator Shannon Marsh noted as well that Amtower did not simply oversee the work, but jumped into the trenches to help with the physical labor itself. "He was not just supervising, he was in it," she said.