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Collaborative Effort Helps Alleviate Water Quality Concerns After Colorado’s Most Destructive Wildfire

September 2022

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Weather patterns in 2021 created ideal wildfire conditions along Colorado’s Front Range. The fall was unusually warm and dry, while winter presented the latest date in Denver history for first snowfall of the season. These circumstances, alongside an unknown spark (or two) and 115-mile-per-hour winds, led to the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. The fire extended over 6,000 acres and burned more than 1,000 homes to the ground within Boulder County. The impacts of this catastrophe are still felt today. The Town of Superior, Colorado, was at the heart of this event and encountered an unexpected casualty: water quality. Ash and debris from the fires were deposited in and around the Town’s raw water storage facility, which existing treatment equipment was not prepared to handle. This led to the distribution of drinking water that had significant taste and odor issues, causing residents to transition to bottled water.

The Town of Superior, realizing their water quality issues would not be resolved without intervention, quickly brought on Dewberry Engineers to help brainstorm solutions to improve water quality. The design team began testing different treatment methods and determined the insertion of a granular activated carbon (GAC) system onto the backend of the existing treatment train would alleviate water quality concerns. After establishing what the treatment process should look like on paper, the Town acted immediately and purchased six GAC vessels without knowing where they would live, or how they would connect to the existing facility. The next step was determining how to insert these new GAC vessels into an existing and operating facility. Garney was brought onto the team to provide input on constructability, sequencing, and start-up with one goal in mind—to begin using the GAC system as soon as possible.

For this project, time was of the essence in every sense of the phrase. Every day that the GAC system was not online was another day that smoky, discolored water was being delivered to customers. On most construction projects, Garney encounters obstacles that need to be overcome for the project to move forward—things like moving existing utilities, permitting, providing input on design drawings, etc. When you add in the fact that there was a supply chain crisis for virtually all construction materials as well as inflation soaring at unprecedented levels, this project quickly had the odds stacked against it. Garney’s team began reaching out to its vast industry network in search of excess materials that could be used to expedite Superior’s project—things like valves, rebar, pipe, and actuators were all being quoted at six months or longer. This was not an option for the Town.

Through support from industry partners, heavy collaboration with both the Town of Superior and Dewberry, countless design iterations that improved the construction schedule, and an unrelenting spirit, Garney was able to start up the GAC system on July 15, 2022—just three months after receiving the first phone call from the Town and Dewberry. The determination and solution-oriented attitude of the entire team drove this project to completion and ultimately relieved the Town and its customers of its smoky water months before anyone thought was possible. This project is a prime example of a community coming back stronger than ever after a horrific disaster and is why it has been recognized as Project of the Year by the American Public Works Association (APWA) Colorado Chapter.

Written by Jared Baker, PE, Business Development / Preconstruction Manager at Garney

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