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Keeping up with the Super Bowl flush

How we keep the water flowing when everyone is going.
Denver's water use, presumably in the bathroom, increased by about 26 million gallons during halftime of the AFC Championship game between the Broncos and Patriots on Jan. 24, 2016.

It’s halftime of the AFC Championship game for my beloved Broncos, and oddly enough the score isn’t the only thing on my mind.

I’m also thinking about the toilet. Yep, that’s right. Not the one in my house, but every other bathroom in the Denver metro area.

Weird? Maybe a little. But as a Denver Water employee, I can’t help it after reading Orange flush: Life in Denver — from traffic to toilets — revolves around the Broncos, by Denver Post reporter Kevin Simpson.

The story featured Dario Diaz, one of Denver Water’s distribution system operators, whose job it is to maintain constant water flow to your home. From his unique vantage point running Denver Water’s system, Diaz described how system operators are able to keep a pulse on the game based on water use — like watching it spike at halftime when everyone runs to the restroom.

When you think about all those toilets flushing at once, it makes sense. But it also begs the question: How is Denver Water able to provide a constant flow and pressure to more than 1 million people when citywide water use increases by 35 million gallons in less than 30 minutes?

“Whether it’s a spike during a Broncos’ halftime or people shutting off their sprinklers when a sudden rainstorm hits on a hot summer day, we have to be prepared for major variations in water use every single day of the year,” said Joel Zdechlik, Denver Water’s system operations supervisor. “Our job is to look ahead through a series of calculated averages to determine how much water we expect customers to use.”

Based on information like historical water-use trends, weather patterns, and system maintenance and upgrade projects, Zdechlik and his team work with water treatment plant operators to produce the right amount of water Denver needs.

But what happens when a spike or dip in water use throws off that calculation? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as treating an extra 35 million gallons during halftime or cutting production by 150 million gallons during an unexpected rainstorm on a hot day.

Why? It's not feasible to just turn off one of our three treatment plants when water use takes a quick plunge. Our treatment plant operators have to maintain a minimum flow at all times because of the energy and effort it takes to start up or shut down a treatment plant. And treating more water to flow through the pipes can require operational changes, like turning on additional sections of a plant.

Don’t worry; we have a plan. To help offset the fluctuations in water use, we send treated water to 30 underground tanks instead of sending it onto your homes. We keep those tanks between 65 percent and 85 percent full, so the extra water acts like a shock absorber, allowing us to withstand the “orange flush” during Broncos games and any other events that might affect water use, such as changes in the weather.

Denver Water is investing $120 million for upgrades to many underground treated water storage tanks, like Ashland Reservoir, where the two century-old tanks have been demolished and are being replaced. In November 2015, crews placed roughly 1,250 cubic yards of concrete for a new floor slab on tank 1.

The tanks are actually designed and positioned for the most important demand on our system: fire protection. They help provide firefighters with enough water and pressure to battle a blaze.

Back in system operations, the team also monitors 165 pressure regulating valves and 115 pumps, which react to changes in water use and minimize the fluctuation in flows and pressures through a 3,000-mile network of underground pipes. If a valve doesn’t respond, system operations employees go to that location to manually adjust the valve and maintain a consistent level of flow and pressure in the system.

As the Broncos move on from the AFC Championship game to the Super Bowl, the water used that day will also be moving onto the great #sewerbowl with our friends at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.

Now it’s time to send the Carolina Panthers down the drain at Super Bowl 50.

Go Broncos!