City: ‘We do not need’ more generators for water system, would cost $45M

Montgomery County says city should invest in more generators to prevent future outages.

Montgomery County wants Dayton to install generators big enough to power its entire water system in case of another disaster like the Memorial Day tornadoes, but city leaders said that would be unnecessary and cost about $45 million.

Dayton has some generators but not enough to run its entire water system. City records obtained by the Dayton Daily News say 29 generators were deployed during the outage, some coming from as far away as Cleveland.

“We would need six or seven generators the size of train engines at each of the two plants to fully backup our system,” Michael Powell, the city’s water director, wrote in a letter to customers in response the county.

Installing and maintaining generators of that size is physically possible, but it would cost customers “about another 2% in addition to the required annual rate increases being added to your city of Dayton water bill,” Powell said.

Powell called a more robust backup system “something, quite frankly, we do not need.”

The county estimates the cost would be much less.

“For $15 (million), $20 million, in that range, the city could have backup power at their plants and well fields so that, should anything like this occur again in the future, they would have backup generation,” said Patrick Turnbull, Montgomery County Environmental Services director. “We at the county believe that would be a good investment.”

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The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions for the most pressing issues facing the community, including protecting the region’s drinking water that serves more than 400,000 people in Dayton and Montgomery County. This story, reported in collaboration with the News Center 7 I-Team, explores whether enough is being done to ensure water keeps flowing when the power goes out.

The 15-tornado outbreak on Memorial Day damaged Dayton Power & Light substations that serve the Dayton water infrastructure. The power outage caused a loss of water pressure and prompted a three-day boil advisory for most of the county.

“They should have a better backup plan for next time,” said Kim Warmbein, a Dayton resident who lost water following the tornadoes. “Obviously we see we’re not immune to these storms.”

Dayton produces water and sells it to its own residents and to Montgomery County, which then sells it throughout several surrounding communities. In addition to Dayton, the system serves Kettering, Riverside, Centerville, Trotwood, Harrison Twp., Brookville and a handful of Greene County customers.

Montgomery County officials entered into a 20-year water contract with the city last year. Since then they have publicly expressed frustration with the city’s operation of the system. Last month, county leadership released a four-page letter detailing their grievances.

One of their concerns is on system redundancy, the idea that the system should have enough backup infrastructure in place to keep water flowing, even if disasters strikes.

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Dayton officials say redundancy is built into the system, including in how it is designed. Dayton has two water treatment plants — the Ottawa plant at 1044 Ottawa St. and the Miami plant at 3210 Chuck Wagner Lane. Both plants can individually support the entire system, Powell said, so if one goes out, the other can pick up the slack.

Each plant, well field and pump station have two separate electrical feeds, Powell said, so if one feed is cut, the other will keep powering the system. The two feeds are routed through separate DP&L substations.

The Memorial Day tornadoes defeated that system for the first time.

“While the devastation caused by the tornadoes certainly led to a large-scale loss of power in our region, the incident revealed that any large-scale loss of power would cripple the city water plants, well fields and pumping stations because the city did not have backup power systems and generators on site,” wrote Michael Colbert, the county administrator, last month in the county’s letter detailing its frustrations.

Colbert additionally said the damage done by the tornadoes “caused a dangerous mixture of broken and leaking gas lines, downed power lines and zero water pressure that would have crippled firefighting operations.”

“Though our emergency operations team worked diligently to supply tankers and mobile options for fire suppression, there is no doubt that this was a dangerous and potentially deadly situation for our community,” he said.

Other disasters have tested water systems in the U.S. before.

The 2003 blackout in the U.S. and Canada, caused by a software bug, provides a case study for a similar disaster. Water customers in Detroit and Cleveland were either totally without water or under a boil advisory because the power loss affected the water systems.

In Cleveland, the blackout cut water to all four of the city’s main water pumping stations, according to news coverage from the time. About 1.5 million people who relied on Cleveland for water went dry. In Michigan, the governor declared a five-county state of emergency around Detroit and called in the National Guard to distribute water.

The Dayton water system has faced previous disasters and power losses, too.

“There’s not just one redundancy in the water system, there’s multiple,” Dayton City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild said. “That worked in 2008 when Hurricane Ike came up. We lost power to one of our water systems but the other plant was fine.”

Fairchild is looking for ways to improve the city’s drinking water system, but he’s reluctant to do it at a cost to other services. He said he doesn’t want to take money from the fire department, police, neighborhood development and other programs that impact safety.

Other water treatment plants in the region, such as Xenia, have full-power backup generators. But the Xenia Water Treatment Plant is much smaller, tapping about four to five million gallons a day on average. The combined Dayton plants have an average daily plant flow of about 67 million gallons per day.

“We’ve worked to put a lot of investments into people and equipment and facilities to make sure that we have the ability to provide that service uninterrupted all of the time,” said Brent Merriman, Xenia city manager. “It’s not cheap.”

Read more Dayton Daily News water coverage:

» Should Ohio set its own limits for chemical in drinking water?

» Contaminants in Dayton water above what some states consider safe

» Understanding Dayton’s drinking water issues

» Progress slow in addressing chemicals in local water systems

About the Path Forward

Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Follow our work at or join one of our Facebook Groups.

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