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How Worthington’s Barrier Systems Can Mitigate Fire Debris Issues

The 2020 fire season was one of the worst in recent memory. Immense fires swept across California, Oregon, Washington, and other U.S. states, causing loss of life, property destruction, and air pollution. Perhaps less known, however, is the fact that wildfires also pose significant problems for dam and waterway owners and operators. After a fire, debris is often swept into conveyance channels, ending up in water intakes, spillgates, and reservoirs. This causes operational disruptions, requires extra expenditures, and can even pose a danger to human lives. Worthington Products is a multidisciplinary designer, manufacturer, and installer of waterway barrier systems that can help address and mitigate these problems. In this interview, Worthington President Paul Meeks talks with Hydro Leader about how his company’s products can help dam owners face up the challenge of fire debris. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about Worthington Products. 

Paul Meeks: Worthington has been around for 20 years. We help our customers to increase their power output and decrease their public safety risk by providing waterway barriers. Those barriers prevent debris from clogging power plant intakes and blocking critical spill gates. This allows hydro operators to generate clean hydroelectric power while being able to safely pass excess flows. 

Hydro Leader: With the many fires in the West, debris will be a major concern for irrigation districts and water agencies. What barrier options are there for fire debris? 

Paul Meeks: Debris is going to be a huge and costly issue. One of my first exposures to the issue of fire debris was in Australia in 2003. Worthington sent five ocean containers full of barriers to the snowy mountain region of Australia following a series of devastating wildfires. That’s when I became aware of how much wildfires can affect dam and hydroelectric power operators. 

Fires, especially the ones that occurred during this 2020 fire season, take a huge personal toll. We see this on the nightly news, and our hearts ache for the people who have lost their lives, homes, livelihoods, and businesses. While the news focuses on the human toll, we do not see the disruptions these fires cause for irrigation companies and other entities that supply water and generate power. The effects on dam safety, power generation, and water quality are significant. 

Unfortunately, 2020 will go down as a record year for wildfires. It has given rise to a new term: gigafire. The August Complex fire in Northern California has burned more than 1 million acres across seven counties—an area larger than Rhode Island. It is still not fully contained. Four million acres in California this year alone have burned, and that doesn’t include what’s happening in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and other states. 

There’s much debate about the causes. The August Complex fire started with a huge, dry thunderstorm. It caused little rain, but there were more than 11,000 lightning strikes. It is estimated that that single event started over 300 fires, including the August Complex. The fire is now the largest on record in California. Five of the top 6 fires in California history are 2020 events. 

What does that mean for folks who are operating irrigation and hydro installations? When rain comes, it brings welcome relief, but it also brings the threat of fire debris washing into river systems and reservoirs, causing massive water quality issues. This wreaks havoc for the professionals charged with maintaining the quality of water for consumption or operating storage and delivery systems for irrigation or power generation. The tons of debris that are washing down into their canals, lakes, and reservoirs threaten their ability to operate normally. When debris blocks water intakes, it can damage equipment, interrupt service, and necessitate costly removal and maintenance efforts. These costs are further increased by revenue losses from the temporary inability to generate power or convey water. When debris blocks spillgates, it reduces spilling capacity and can threaten the integrity of the dam and downstream communities during a probable maximum flood event. Conversely, when debris lodges in a spillgate, it can prevent gate closure, potentially leading to downstream flooding and scour. Fire debris floating in reservoirs jeopardizes recreational activities and may require the reservoirs to be closed while operators try to restore safe conditions. 

We’ve worked with clients worldwide to provide solutions that stop, deflect, or corral fire debris so it does not disrupt operations. In California, we often put boom lines in the tributaries of large reservoirs to catch debris as it washes down the canyons, before it gets into the main area of the reservoir. A proper debris boom system will effectively promote dam safety and power generation while preventing intake and equipment losses. 

In many cases, the federal government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offer help, including financial help, to dam owners. In 2018, the wine region of Napa Valley was hit by large fires. Milliken Dam, owned by the City of Napa, is the city’s primary water supply source. The area surrounding the dam was badly burned, and the city was facing a bill of $336,000 for the initial cleanup. It also needed to install a barrier system to keep debris away from the dam’s intakes. The federal government ponied up roughly 75 percent of the cost of installing emergency debris barriers at Milliken Dam. The city was in such a rush to finish the installation before winter that it assembled the boom line off site and flew it in with helicopters. 

Another example occurred in 1997 at Slab Creek Reservoir in California. Managers at Sacramento Municipal Utility District had anticipated potential debris problems and had installed a boom line to keep debris away from the dam. That foresight and action was rewarded when, on New Year’s Eve, 1997, heavy rains poured down on a record early-season snow base. Fire debris quickly washed into the reservoir. More than a mile’s worth of debris piled up behind the boom line. During this event, water was flowing 10 feet over the crest of the dam. Fortunately, the vast majority of the debris was held back. FEMA picked up the tab for the cleanup effort. 

Hydro Leader: How can irrigation districts and water agencies determine which barrier is best for them? 

Paul Meeks: The best thing to do is to talk to a manufacturer of barriers. At Worthington, we typically start the conversation by pulling up an aerial image on Google Maps. This provides our advisors with a wealth of information on what we might expect. It provides us an idea of the conditions we might see and gives us a sense of the additional information we might need from the agency. We ask about flows in the canals and rivers to be able to determine loads on the boom lien. This informs us about the type of boom that would be most effective. Infrequently, we have to tell an irrigation company that the flows in a given location are too high for a boom to be effective. We have a frank discussion about the agency’s goals and where else we might consider placing a boom. We’ve been down that road so many times that we can give good advice about how to place, position, and angle booms to make the agency’s systems most effective.

Hydro Leader: Does Worthington install the booms, or is that something that irrigation district and water agency crews do themselves? 

Paul Meeks: If it’s a standard boom line like a Tuffboom or our new high-density polyethylene (HDPE) boom, the OdinBoom, installation is relatively simple. We designed the units in easy-to-handle 10‑ or 20‑foot-long modules. For a typical irrigation district, the booms are usually less than 300 feet or so in length. Something of that size can be installed by an irrigation district’s maintenance crews. Assembling and installing the booms is simple and does not require specialized equipment. The only complicated part is setting an anchor, and that just requires someone who knows how to dig a hole in the ground and pour some concrete. We do offer technical assistance and onsite guidance for that. We also have relationships with contractors and marine companies all over the United States that can do the installation as a turnkey project or work with the agency on it. We can work with any local subcontractor an agency has an existing relationship with. 

Hydro Leader: What type of information is needed to design the barrier? 

Paul Meeks: Google Earth gives us a general layout and allows us to take measurements that are accurate within a foot or two. That’s close enough for a boom line. If we’re dealing with a canal, we need to know the total volume of flow and the specific surface velocity in feet or meters per second. We need to know about water level fluctuations, wind loading, the wind speeds that typically occur in the area, whether ice is an issue, and how much debris gets in. Not every agency knows all this information, but we can make good assumptions based on the expertise we have built over the years. 

Hydro Leader: How long does design, manufacturing, and installation take? 

Paul Meeks: It all depends on the complexity of the project. We had the Milliken Dam boom line done in 5–6 weeks. During the fire season, we always maintain an additional inventory of booms because we know there may be emergency demand. A complex design can add 3–6 weeks to the project. We try to run parallel paths. Most design work centers on designing the anchors, and fairly early on in the design process we already know the type of boom and its layout and depth. That means that we can start on production and manufacturing before the design is completely finished, which helps us get products out to our customers quickly, especially if they’re in an emergency situation. 

Hydro Leader: How many debris barriers have you manufactured? 

Paul Meeks: A lot. I estimate we supply 30,000 lineal feet per year. 

Hydro Leader: How many countries do you work in? 

Paul Meeks: If you asked me that question 3 weeks ago, I would have told you 63, but today it’s 65. We just received two large projects, one in Cameroon and the second in Argentina for a nuclear power plant. 

Hydro Leader: What should every manager and board member of an irrigation district or municipality know about working with you and Worthington? 

Paul Meeks: We’re going to give it to you straight up. We value the power of a handshake and our word, and we stand behind our product. A warranty and a written policy mean absolutely nothing if we don’t back them up with action. Our actions are always focused on helping our clients achieve their goals. We want to make sure that what we do speaks so loudly that it is clear that we are an action-over-words company. Our clients can trust us to provide the right solutions and to be there throughout. We don’t care if we’re 5, 6, or 10 years past a warranty expiration—if there is an issue with how we made a product, we’re going to address that. We do that because our name is on every one of those products. We’re an easy company to work with: Our people love what they do, and it shows in how we interact with our customers. 

Hydro Leader: Who should people call if they want more information about Worthington? 

Paul Meeks: They can call our general number— (330) 452‑7400—and they’ll be directed to one of our barrier experts, who will then guide them through the process, answer their questions, and provide useful information. 

Hydro Leader: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Paul Meeks: There are a lot of theories about these wildfires. Climate change is real and plans to address it need to be in place, because we’re already seeing a longer fire season and more severe events. Regardless of your views on what causes climate change, the bottom line is that it’s real and people need to be prepared. A big part of that preparation program is having some type of barrier system in place. My good friend Tom Reiss, owner of Hydro Component Systems, advised me several years ago on the seven Ps: Prior proper planning prevents pitifully poor performance. If you plan for what’s going to happen, you’ll have good results. 

Paul Meeks is the president of Worthington Products. He can be contacted at pmeeks@tuffboom.com or (330) 452‑7400.