Water Flows from the Desert

15 Apr 2003 | Cpl. Jeff Hawk

In a place where sweat wicks off skin before one can register its presence, the mere mention of the word "water" seems laughable. But for Marines charged with providing purified water to rapidly advancing coalition forces, the mission is no joke.

"This is mission essential," says Anderson, Alaska-native Sgt. Dan Jenkins, 26, hygiene equipment operator, Utilities Plt, Engineer Support Co, 7th Engineer Support Bn. Jenkins and his fellow Marines - mostly reservists from 6th Engineer Support Bn units - arrived here at night during the war's early hours to quickly assemble a water point as forces raced northward. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force designated 6th ESB, 4th Force Service Support Group, with its bulk water and fuel mission.

Though the original mission gave 6th ESB 48 hours to produce and distribute potable water, the war's rapid pace dictated otherwise. Within 16 hours, the Marines made and gave out more than 47,000 gal. of water to "anyone that wanted it," says MSgt. Ricky Watson, Utilities Plt chief, 6th ESB. Customers included U.S. Army and British units moving forward. "They were taking it as fast as we were producing it," says Watson, a 38-year-old Fayetteville, N.C. native.

Deploying the unit's huge 50,000 gal. bladders and laying out the water production site itself took effort and coordination that night, says Jenkins. "The initial shock was a little challenging but once the N-C-Os organized the troops, it was gravy," says Jenkins. After 21 days of operation, the unit has produced more than 1,151,000 gal. of water and trucked nearly a million gal. to locations up to 250 miles away. "We distribute about 80,000-100,000 gal. a day and we produce about 90,000-110,000 gal. a day," says Azusa, Calif.-native SSgt. Jeffrey Murrill, water purification chief, Utilities Plt, 6th ESB. Two smaller water points built north of Viper are lightening its load.

Pulled from "The Mother of All Battles" Canal off the Euphrates River, the raw water initially registers at 23,000 to 32,000 parts per million, says Murrill. "This is really salty, dirty water but we're able to reject all the impurities out of it," he says. After purification, the water is typically four or five times cleaner than commercially bottled water, he says. "Evain is rated at 160 parts per million. We're getting rates as low as 12 ppm," says Murrill.

Twenty-five-year-old reverse osmosis water purification technology makes its all possible. "It's an amazing piece of gear," says Murrill. The reverse osmosis water purification units, or ROWPUs, contain three basic filtration systems. The first-level multimedia filter acts like a fish tank filter to remove large elements. The water then flows through 40-in. long tubes of woven cotton called cartridge filters to remove finer particles. "The most intriguing part of the system is the reverse osmosis elements," says Murrill. Eight filters perforated with miniscule holes "reject all impurities on the periodic table," says Murrill. The holes are just big enough to let hydrogen and oxygen through. Marines use a total dissolve solids (TDS) meter to check parts per million and Ph levels on an hourly basis.

The security purposes, the water is trucked rather than piped to outlying locations. "It's withdrawn from a secure area, produce from a secure area, and distributed from a secure area," says Murrill. "It gives the Marines a true sense that their water is not being tampered with."

The unit runs up to 15 ROWPUs simultaneously to maintain the demand. Roughly 40,000 gal. alone is delivered daily to a military hospital. Marines store at least 200,000 gal. of purified water on site and work long hours maintaining the gear and distributing water.

For reserve Marines making up the bulk of the workforce, the mission was the first opportunity to set up and maintain a site this large. "Active-duty Marines taught, guided and mentored the reserve Marines," says Murrill. Active-duty 7th ESB Marines attached to 6th ESB for the mission. "I knew how to run the (ROWPU) units; now I know how fix them if they break," says reserve LCpl. Martin Fulgencio, a 20-year-old 6th ESB hygiene equipment operator from Saginaw, Mich.

Maintenance is key in these harsh desert environs. Just keeping generators running is a challenge, says reserve SSgt. Ruby Finck, a 31-year-old platoon sergeant and electrician for Utilities Plt, Engineering Support Co, 6th ESB. "We do what we can to keep the generators up, but it's very hard," says Finck, who hails from Vancouver, Wash. "There's so much dust, it's difficult keeping filters clean." 

The unit can produce potable water and offer decontamination services in a nuclear, biological and chemical environment. "You have to have potable water for decontamination," says Watson. "These Marines know the importance of water."

Says Murrill: "These Marines feel they have a major impact in this war. They take an undesirable product, refine it, and provide it to Marine's fighting up front."
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