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Cotulla’s utility service suffers lightning strikes
The apparent failure of the Cotulla municipal supply and a subsequent “boil water” order issued by City Hall last week resulted directly from a summer storm and lightning strike at more than one well, according to Engineer David Wright.
Addressing city councilors at their meeting in the AB Alexander Convention Center Thursday evening, July 8, Wright said he believes that more than one site in the city’s water supply system suffered critical blows during the night between Monday and Tuesday, July 5-6.
Failure of more than one 300-horsepower water pump at the city’s wells, according to Administrator Larry Dovalina, prompted a “boil water” order early Tuesday because of the risk of drinking water contamination.
The order, Dovalina said, is a requirement set out by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), a state agency that must be notified whenever a municipal utility system fails.
Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia pre-empted the water system engineer’s statement on the incident by commending the crews responsible for correcting the flaws, bringing water pressures back to an acceptable level for potability, and enabling the city to lift its “boil water” order the following day.
“We had serious issues,” the mayor said, “but our staff got the system back up.”
“There was a lightning storm on the night of July 5,” Wright said of the incident. “At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, lightning strikes damaged two wells, rendering them inoperable. I received a damage report.
“When this happens, it affects every pump,” the engineer said, indicating that failure of more than one water well put added demand on other sources. “We experienced a pressure drop to below twenty pounds per square inch, which requires emergency action. In some areas, the water pressure dropped to ten pounds per square inch.
“We had it fixed in two hours,” Wright said. “The TCEQ requires a report.”
The engineer confirmed that Cotulla’s Well Number Eight near the site of the city’s onetime public swimming pool was struck by lightning in the early hours of Tuesday, July 6.
“The three-hundred horsepower motor exploded,” Wright said. “We had a motor on standby; we contacted [service company] Peerless, and by the end of the day the well was operational.”
Wright responded to councilors’ queries over the vulnerability of water wells, pumps being disabled by lightning strikes, and confirmed that all fixtures and electrical systems are grounded.
“We are wondering why something like this is happening,” Wright said. “We want an engineer to tell us why it is vulnerable to lightning.”
“This is the second time this has happened,” Dovalina said, adding that he believes there may be flaws in the electrical system or water well apparatus that cause failures during lightning storms. “We think there is something else there.”
“The circuit board was fried,” Wright said of the scene he and his crews discovered after the strike. “The system turns the water off and on, so that we don’t have to do it. The system is ten years old. It was a great relief to get it. A computer screen shows us what is functioning.
“At another well, the electrics tripped,” Wright said. “We turned that on by hand.”
Damages to electrical circuit boards may prove costly, according to City Hall, as two affected panels are priced at $5,200 apiece.
Beside the La Salle County Courthouse, Cotulla’s Well Number Five was likewise damaged during the storm, Wright said, and electrical components were seriously affected.
“The system at the well is designed to gradually ramp up power, so the city isn’t hit with a sudden demand,” Wright said. “The components were burned up.”
Well Number Seven was not in service during the night of the storm, as repairs to an apparent leak had been scheduled.
“We tried to start it,” Wright said of the emergency measures his crew was taking during the night to bring water supplies back on line, “but the pipe burst. The repair parts were on order.”
At Well Number Nine, an electrical box performed as it should, according to the engineer, and a panel whose breaker had been tripped only required resetting.
“That’s the only one that did its job,” the engineer said.
The city’s “boil water” order was rescinded at noon on Wednesday, according to City Hall.
“We posted the order at businesses,” Wright said. “We don’t have the manpower to go to everyone in town.”
“The TCEQ requires that we make a good-faith effort to notify the people,” the city administrator said.
Dovalina confirmed that the city expects to file an insurance claim for the damage and that he will contact representatives of the Texas Municipal League for consultation on the claims process.
“I have a back-up motor,” Wright said. “We are going to have the damaged motor rebuilt.”