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Above: Because of Chad Garland's dedication and long hours after the 2004 flooding of the water treatment plant, Zelienople's residents were able to have clean water within days. Below: Although the borough water plant was destroyed, Zelienople was lucky to lose only about 20 homes. Photos: Laurie Banyay

Chad Garland hails from a town that few people can pronounce—and even fewer can find on a map. Zelienople (pronounced “zill-ee-in-opal”), a borough of just more than 4000 people, is in western Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Garland, superintendent of the borough's water system since 1999, started working for Zelienople's water plant in 1992 as part-time summer help while studying environmental science at Penn State University. As he held increasingly responsible positions, he dealt with various challenges. The biggest came in September 2004, when torrential rains from Hurricane Ivan hit the borough and surrounding areas, submersing and destroying homes and businesses. Zelienople's water treatment facility was under 4½ feet of water. Since the plant also supplies water to neighboring Marion Township, they were able to reverse the interconnection so Marion could send water back to Zelienople.

“Instead of being the seller, we became the purchaser of some bulk water,” said Garland. “It gave us time to get the water plant up and running.”

President Bush declared 19 Pennsylvania counties—including Butler County, where Zelienople is located— a federal disaster area. Although the town never received money from the federal government, the state provided financial assistance. Zelienople is currently going through the settlement process with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Garland.

During the floods, Garland worked 90 hours the first week and 80 hours the second week to restore Zelienople's water. Cleaning and disinfection was necessary for the three water filters, sedimentation basins, clearwells, and all the chemical feed equipment and feed lines.

Garland estimates the damage at about $500,000; however, the precise total still isn't known. “We're still finding underlying damage that hasn't really shown up,” he said. Some of the systems that were damaged, then restored, are starting to deteriorate prematurely. “It's probably flood-related but we didn't pick it up at the time since they came back online,” said Garland.

As devastating as the floods were, Zelienople no longer has to draw water during droughts from its former secondary source, the Connoquenessing Creek, which was rated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the second most polluted body of water in the United States in the late 1990s because of high nitrate levels. The town receives water from Marion Township during emergencies through the interconnection. “We'll be able to purchase water off of larger suppliers for those emergency times,” said Garland.

Of working in a small town, Garland said, “You can interact with the community a lot easier than I imagine you could working in a large community or city system. There's a lot more room to grow and build a career at a younger age than I would've seen in a larger system.”

Garland was honored March 31 with the Pennsylvania Rural Water Association's 2005 Richard C. Miller Water Operator of the Year award for going above and beyond job expectations in a critical situation.

Zelienople is a rarity in that it's a small community still trying to use its own public water supply. Many small systems are buying into larger ones like Pennsylvania American Water. “Zelienople has been very proud of the fact that we've owned and operated a water treatment plant since the turn of the century,” said Garland. “We've operated a filter treatment, surface water plant since 1923. The town takes pride in our water system.”

Zelienople at a glance

Population: 4123

Location: 30 miles north of Pittsburgh

Water superintendent: Chad Garland

Water budget: more than $2 million

Water staff: three full-time staff, one to two part-time summer help

Miles of water pipe: more than 8 miles

Primary water source: Scholars Run Creek