With expected heavy rainfall and high winds by the weekend, Athens Utilities Board (AUB) is prepping for impacts across the four field divisions. 

“We know our vulnerabilities and we’re preparing in every way possible as we wait for the incoming rain and wind,” said AUB’s Eric Newberry. 

“Each division is taking steps to be best prepared.   We are planning and prepping for worst case scenarios relative to our operations and customer support,” he said.

Of specific concern are trees taking down power lines, the ability to handle peak flows at treatment plants, and flooding that can impact infrastructure such as pumping stations and pad-mounted power transformers situated in low-lying areas.

AUB has recorded 3.92 inches of rain since January 1.

Rainfall of this magnitude over an extended period of time can lead to ground saturation and softening of the soil.

“The soft soil sometimes allows trees simply to fall over, pulling up roots and all at the base.  And when this happens, the tree is usually a big one.  Customers generally are understanding that the resulting mess of wire, debris and fallen tree can lead to long restoration times for our crews,” Newberry said.

He said that AUB’s Vegetation Management program keeps power lines clear of trees, but the trimming right of way only extends so far from the lines.

“Even trees standing 50 feet away or across the road from power lines may fall and take out lines.  We call these ‘danger trees’ and there are literally thousands of them on the system that could take down a power line easily, but that are outside of our trimming right of way,” Newberry said. 

Sometimes flooded areas, ground saturation that can mire large trucks in mud, and storm debris can challenge AUB response time as crews work merely to access some areas.

For instance, AUB bucket trucks may be idled by ground conditions that are too unstable to support a truck, requiring linemen to reassess the job and climb poles for repairs.

“This changes the materials handling and safety aspects of the job considerably and can add time to the work,” Newberry said.

Crews in AUB’s wastewater, natural gas, and water divisions also are preparing for the wet week.

“Our wastewater systems will see a big impact with high flows in wastewater lines due to groundwater and storm runoff that finds its way into our pipes,” said AUB’s Craig Brymer, the Superintendent of Natural Gas, Water and Wastewater. 

The increase in rainfall and floodwaters can lead to overflows of manholes and pump stations and cause backups in sewer lines due to partial blockages that just haven’t revealed themselves yet.

During heavy rainfall, a blockage in a wastewater line can lead to backups in toilets and drains.

“If this were to happen in your home, the first step would be to call AUB at (423) 745-3131 to get a serviceman on-site to pinpoint the issue. Crew members often can find the blockage and flush it out or find another relief point to alleviate the backup,” Newberry said.

“Rainfall events like the one we may experience effectively “stress test” our system and show us where problems persist and serve to remind us that there is still work to be done,” Brymer said.

The increased flow eventually finds its way to AUB’s wastewater treatment plants where operators are prepared to handle the dramatically increased flow.

“Our experienced operations staff will make the necessary adjustments to provide the same level of treatment efficiency that happens every day.  These events put additional stresses on our processes and equipment but do not reduce our ability to produce clean water that exceeds regulatory standards,” Brymer said.

Plant operators at AUB’s Oostanaula Wastewater Treatment Plant, North Mouse Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the Vernon Wade Filter Plant will continue to work throughout each day and overnight on location to handle these extra stresses on the systems while the rain event lasts.

 “Across the utility we are working to be as ready as we can be, and we encourage all in the community to do the same,” Newberry said.