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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hillyard’s water contamination may lead to locks on fire hydrants

A locked fire hydrant is seen in Post Falls on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Spokane is considering implementing fire hydrant locks after contamination of the water supply in Hillyard. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
A locked fire hydrant is seen in Post Falls on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Spokane is considering implementing fire hydrant locks after contamination of the water supply in Hillyard. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

One company’s mistake could result in million-dollar changes to the city’s water infrastructure.

In July, Hillyard residents opened their taps to find green water pouring out.

Now, the city will consider installing locking devices on its fire hydrants to prevent unauthorized access to the city’s water supply, as well as constructing fill stations that contractors can use to access water instead of hooking up directly into fire hydrants.

In July, a hydroseeding company hooked up to a city fire hydrant and its solution backflowed into the city water system, resulting in contamination of the water supply of about 100 to 120 properties.

Hydroseed is a liquid mixture of dyed paper mulch and seed. Many modern hydroseeding trucks have a space filled with air, called an air gap, that separates the water leaving the hydrant from the tank of the truck, preventing backflow.

Although companies are required to obtain a permit before tapping into a hydrant, the incident in Hillyard demonstrated how difficult it is for the city to track where a contractor is taking water from and how much water is being used.

The installation of hydrant locks would likely have to be implemented in phases, as the cost of adding a lock to every hydrant in the city is expected to exceed $1 million, according to Dan Kegley, who oversees the city’s water system.

A funding source has yet to be identified.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to pay for that, but based on how much money we likely just spent on one small incident … I don’t think we can not lock them, both for cost and for safety,” said City Councilman Breean Beggs, who chairs the Public Infrastructure, Environment, and Sustainability Committee.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer raised no objections to the installation of locks on city hydrants.

“It’s just an additional step that is largely not an operational issue, it’s more of a training issue for us,” Schaeffer said. “It’s merely seconds it takes to unlock a hydrant, the devices are very easy to to use.”

Post Falls has had locks in place on its hydrants for about 20 years.

“It’s our responsibility to protect the water system and we thought that was a prudent action,” said Craig Borrenpohl, utilities manager in Post Falls.

Post Falls has a hydrant permit system, and there are basic requirements on backflow protection for anyone who wants to hook into a hydrant. Once the permit is approved, a city employee is dispatched to unlock the appropriate hydrant. The rest remain locked.

Based on conversations the city had last year, Kegley provided a rough estimate of $400,000 per fill station. Based on the city’s geography, officials think about six would need to be constructed.

The cost of fill station construction could be offset through user fees. Currently, contractors pay a flat fee for a permit to hook into a hydrant, but the fill stations would include a metering system to allow the city to charge on a per-gallon basis.

Metering would also help the city’s efforts to conserve water and protect its aquifer.

“We have a considerable volume of water that’s being pumped that’s not a metered flow. They’re paying a flat fee. So we would like to better understand what that total water use is in gallons,” Kegley said.

The city would also like to review and strengthen its hydrant permit program, Kegley said, particularly by ensuring that the “proper level of penalty is in place in the code,” and that “people who are on hydrants illegally are appropriately dealt with.”

As for holding someone responsible for the incident in Hillyard, Kegley said it remains under investigation by the Spokane Police Department.

Beggs praised the city’s water department for its response to the contamination.

“They got on it right away, they limited the distribution of the bad water, they worked closely with the state health department and tested and tested and tested, and they changed out all of the meters at that trailer park. My sense is that people went above what you expect normally, and for good reason,” Beggs said.

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