Charlie Halford remembers the longest prolonged power outage in modern Manteca history.
The former police chief was working the streets on a hot August day in 1996 when the Western Power Black occurred during an intense heat spell where many areas throughout the western United States — including Manteca — were dealing with temperatures flirting with the 110-degree mark.
Power was knocked out to more than 4 million people in California and Oregon. Some had power restored with minutes. Others, including the 42,000 people living in Manteca at the time, were without power for 12 hours.
As the power outage dragged on and the mercury soared people sought relief by going outside and letting their kids turn on sprinklers and hoses to cool down.
Given Manteca relied 100 percent on well water at the time and only a few wells had backup generators, water pressure started plummeting.
Manteca firefighters realized a potential disaster was in the making. Manteca Police dispatched officers to drive down streets using public address systems to tell people to turn off sprinklers.
“As you were telling people to shut off sprinklers you could see the water they were putting out get lower and lower,” Halford recalled.
What happened in 1996 will be nothing compared to the prospects of PG&E’s plan to cut off electricity to Manteca and nearby cities for up to five days whenever severe wildfire conditions exist in areas in the foothills and Sierra that are served by the same transmission lines that power valley communities.
There are twice as many Manteca residents today. And while Manteca now also receives treated surface water from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District as does Lathrop and Tracy, the challenges PG&E has created by failing to stay on top of pole and equipment replacement are significantly worse than a 12-hour outage.
The SSJID plant can’t treat water without power. At any given time there is the equivalent of six hours of treated water in storage to supply the three cities. Available treated surface water could be gone just a fourth of the way of a day into a deliberate outage that could last up to five days. Not all city wells have generators. Water and emergency services personnel agree that water pressure will be substantially reduced even if everyone in Manteca ceased watering lawns and irrigation landscape that is by far the largest single use of water in the city.
The odds are the city’s three massive water tanks — one on Atherton Drive at Woodward Avenue, another on Lathrop Road east of Union Road, and the other on West Yosemite Avenue by the wastewater treatment plant — would likely be drained sometime within the first day or so. That is a critical concern because if it happens water pressure will, for want of a better word, be in the toilet.
Speaking of toilets, adequate pressure for fighting fires isn’t the only pressure concern. It could make flushing toilets and issue meaning some of the 1976 drought survival habits may have to come into play where water from quick showers (assuming they can still be taken) and other domestic uses may be needed to be saved in buckets to flush toilets.
Keep in mind this will be coming to you courtesy of PG&E and no one else including the City of Manteca. It is not the result of global warming but years of PG&E not doing what they were supposed to be doing to maintain the integrity of equipment. By de-energizing transmission lines PG&E is absolved of wildfire damages as well as financial liability for any loses suffered as part of the power outage.
In the coming days the city will fashion an emergency plan and make the people aware of it. As for Manteca households they will all need to prepare for an event PG&E has warned may come with only a few hours of warning.
We need to all start getting into the mindset now that when PG&E plunges large swaths of what would be the world’s fifth mightiest economy if California were a sovereign nation into Third World status that we need to cease outdoor watering of lawns and gardens.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com