Just before 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, Blaine Council Member Jason King was on his treadmill when his phone started “blowing up” with texts and Facebook messages from residents saying their water pressure was low.
King checked his own faucets and had the same problem. He immediately called City Manager Clark Arneson, alerting him of the issue.
“(Arneson) said he would start calling folks right away. We still had a little water pressure and since I was stinky I jumped off the treadmill to take a shower because I figured I would have to come up to (Blaine City Hall),” King said.
Just after 6 p.m., the Emergency Operations Center at Blaine City Hall was activated so the city could respond to concerns, investigate what had happened and respond to residents via social media.
Unbeknownst to the city’s weekend public works crew, there was a power supply failure Feb. 11 at Water Tower No. 1 at Aquatore Park. As water demand increased on Feb. 12, additional pumps were not activated and the city’s alarm system did not notify staff because the power supply failure disrupted the utility communications system.
Within two hours of being notified of the problem, water pressure was restored. Arneson said the Minnesota Department of Health recommends that people boil water during a 24-hour period if there is a significant water pressure drop in case any bacteria got into the water supy.
All Blaine public schools were closed on Feb. 13, but re-opened Feb. 14 after the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the city’s water supply is not contaminated and can be used as normal.
Arneson said the city had replaced the power supply that had failed and additional redundancies are being put into place.
“We’ve got water tower sensors that the SCADA system is supposed to report to us when there’s a problem. We will add an additional sensor with an independent system,” he said.
But this was not the first time Blaine has responded to a problem with its water system in 2017.
While in this week’s incident Blaine residents and business lost water pressure for about two hours, on Jan. 8 they were without water for anywhere from two to six hours when there was a software failure in the system that caused the water towers to be emptied without any warning being sent to the city, according to Public Services Manager Robert Therres.
City Manager Clark Arneson said the two incidents are not related.
“The first incident is a software related issue. The second is a mechanical-electrical issue,” he said.
But Arneson would not comment further on what led to Blaine residents being without water the morning of Jan. 8. At a Feb. 13 press conference, he said it has been determined what caused the software problem, but the Minnesota Data Practices Act prohibits him from commenting on any personnel matters.
The Blaine City Council had a closed session scheduled Thursday evening, Feb. 16 in which the topic is “preliminary consideration of allegations against an individual.”
Arneson said the Blaine Police Department investigated and found there was no attack on Blaine’s water system.
“There was neither criminal intent, nor criminal action, to disrupt water service to the city of Blaine,” Arneson said.
Going forward, Arneson said the city will be working with outside experts to conduct an audit of the city’s utility system to see if any technology or security improvements can be made.
Andy Garvais, one of two new Blaine council members since January, wishes he could share more information with the public.
“It’s unfortunate at this time because of Minnesota Data Practices that we can’t give the residents and the media more information about what went on other than I’m 100 percent confident that the root cause of these two outages are different,” he said.
King said after the Jan. 8 incident, the “marching orders” council gave to city staff was “make sure everything is redundant and fully independent so if there is a failure we know there is a failure and (city staff) is notified immediately and it didn’t occur this time.”
When asked after the Feb. 13 press conference if he feels confident that Blaine will not have a third incident, King responded, “Right now, not 100 percent. I haven’t gotten that feeling from staff yet. I’m hoping to get that very quickly,”
Garvais said he is “100 percent” confident that the city and council will get a “top-down” assessment of what went wrong and measures that could be taken to prevent anything else from going wrong.
Mayor Tom Ryan said people seemed to be more forgiving after the Jan. 8 incident happened, but the response he has gotten from the public since the Feb. 12 incident has been “ugly” and a couple of people have told him he should resign for not disciplining staff.
When asked on Feb. 13 if he feels 100 percent certain that something like this could not happen again in Blaine, the mayor said, “Ask me in a week. We’ll fix it regardless. I don’t care what it costs. We’re going to know a lot more in a week.”