Booster pump mechanical failures at Milk Ranch No.1 well and the Strawberry Hollow Filter Building caused the severe, June 18-23 water service outages in Pine and Strawberry, officials revealed on Saturday.
That’s what CH2MHill Payson District Manager Brad Cole told an overflow crowd of water users who packed a Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District meeting held July 28 in the Pine Cultural Hall.
Calling the breakdown of the two pumps “a perfect storm,” Cole described how the booster pump at Milk Ranch No. 1 “burned up and froze” and the one at Strawberry Hollow suffered nearly the same malfunction.
Running continually due to drought conditions and high water demands, the pumps lacked an automated monitoring control system that could shut them down once problems were detected.
With the two booster pumps not operating, demand quickly drained the the system’s largest, 300,000 gallons storage tank.
“There was no water going in,” said Cole.
During the evening hours of June 18, CH2MHill employees reported problems with the volume of the tank. At about the same time, customers in the higher elevations of Pine began reporting outages.
The following day, employees discovered the problems with the two pumps and started work on repairs. At about the same time, water district officials reported the problems to ADEQ and started using door hangers, e-mails, Web sites and the media to warn the public of shortages and possible contaminations.
However, some customers, including Water for Pine Strawberry spokesman Sam Schwalm, said the warning methods were not adequate and that the district should return to using water conservation signs that previously existed at strategic locations in the two communities.
However, the PSWID board agreed months ago to remove the conservation signs they considered eyesores and stark reminders of the tumultuous years of shortages, outages, restrictions and water hauling.
The removal of those signs concern some water users who say they relied on them for up-to-date conservation information.
“The stages are meant as a tool to communicate to the community when there is a water supply problem,” said Schwalm. “PSWID seems to see them as an admission of failure rather than a communication tool.”
On the morning of June 20, the 300,000-gallon storage tank emptied completely, leaving 1,000 customers without water.
PSWID and CH2MHill officials responded by immediately arranging for the distribution of bottled drinking water at the district office and asking Payson to supply water to refill the storage tank.
Crews completed repairs by June 21, then refilled the 300,000-gallon tank and sent water samples to the Valley for testing.
Lab reports indicated the samples met acceptable standards, reserves were returning to normal and the district gave the OK for customers to begin using the water.
At the onset of Saturday’s meeting, Cole addressed some of the rumors circulating during and after the outage.
One rumor heard in cafés, filling stations, watering holes and the post office linked the outages to the firing of CH2MHill employees the day before.
Cole said the dismissal of employees had nothing to do with the outage saying, “It would have happened anyway.”
The general manager then backed away from further talk about the incident saying, “I can’t discuss personnel matters.”
Cole also addressed a persistent rumor that the outage could have involved sabotage. He said, “there were some suspicions” but those investigating, “could find no direct correlation” and “it was all hearsay.”
Cole did, however, reveal CH2MHill investigators shared their findings with the FBI.
Although Cole dismissed sabotage as a cause, the district listed “increased security” on its report of what is being currently done to prevent future occurrences. The list of counter measures also included instrumentation controls, better automation, system capital improvements at all three Milk Ranch wells, additional storage and increased manual checks.
Cole said CH2MHill has so far spent $171,000 correcting the system problems that contributed to the outages.
Also, he added, CH2MHill paid $22,000 in water hauling charges, “that customers will not see on their bills.”
That’s in sharp contrast to the policy of Brooke Utilities, the previous water system owner and operator, who during shortages often assessed large water hauling charges — sometimes doubling and tripling customers’ bills.
Cole noted that the somewhat daunting warning notices sent out to water users during the five days of outages were ADEQ mandated and only “an exercise in an abundance of caution.”
PSWID Board Chairman Gary Lovetro said the state required the stern warnings that advised customers not to drink, bathe or cook with the water.
“It was handled properly,” Lovetro said.
However, the notices alarmed many water users to the point some still won’t drink tap water.
Cole contends officials never thought the water was tainted, but were required by state law to inform the public of even potential problems.