Santa Rosa officials are scrambling to figure out why the drinking water in a wildfire-ravaged section of Fountaingrove is contaminated with a chemical commonly found in plastics and gasoline.
A team of local water quality officials, regulators and experts has been working for 2½ months to understand how the volatile hydrocarbon benzene is getting into the water system and how to fix the problem.
They suspect the heat of the Tubbs fire, which incinerated 1,400 homes in the area, may have damaged parts of the water delivery system, such as plastic water pipes or meters, and caused the dangerous carcinogen to leach into the neighborhood’s water supply.
But despite hundreds of water tests, detailed mapping of the results and targeted equipment replacement, the problem still persists, leaving officials confounded and a $20 million replacement of the water system a real possibility.
“This is the top priority of the water department and we are putting every resource on this and we are committed to resolving it,” Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, said this week.
It’s the third fire-related infrastructure crisis to hit the upscale neighborhood since the Tubbs fire laid waste to 3,000 homes in the city, about half of them in the exclusive enclave of hillside homes in the northeast corner of the city.
The first came immediately after the fire when low water pressure in the area made officials worry that contamination might seep into the system. That resulted in warnings to residents in Fountaingrove and Oakmont to boil their water until the problem was fixed. No contamination was discovered at that point and the warning was lifted a week later.
Then in early November, the city realized that many of its plastic storm drains had melted during the fire, burning holes in the pipes and causing sinkholes to open up in several places following rainy weather. Those damaged pipes have all been repaired.
Both of those issues received significant media attention at the time.
But less publicized was an advisory that went out Nov. 10 alerting residents of 13 homes of “slightly elevated levels of contaminants” in “two isolated areas” of Fountaingrove. The advisory did not name the contaminants or describe the area further.
The city advised residents of the area not to drink the water until further notice, including for brushing teeth and cooking, and, unlike the boil notice issued in October, not to boil the water or try to treat it in any way. Residents of the homes were directly notified in person or with door-hangers.
The city was alerted to the problem after a resident returned to their home and on Nov. 8 reported an unusual odor, said Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water and engineering resources.
Tests confirmed the contamination and the advisory was issued for 184 acres on both sides of Fountaingrove Parkway, including approximately 350 homesites, mostly off Fir Ridge Drive, South Ridge Drive and parts of Crown Hill Drive.
The city immediately began providing bottled water to all 13 homes, about 10 of which are presently occupied, and continues to do so.
Andrea Cromphout and her family have been back in their home on East Bristlecone Court since around Thanksgiving. It has been a challenge for her to cook the family’s meals, and her husband, a home brewer, to create his cask-aged ales using the bottled water, but they’re not complaining.
“Our neighbors lost their homes,” Cromphout said. “We have no reason to whine whatsoever.”
To help, the city initially gave the family of four an orange water jug, which they keep on the counter in their kitchen. Water department workers have been showing up about twice a week, either in the blue “Hydration Station” truck used at special events, or a larger tanker truck, to fill up the jug and other water containers.
More recently, however, the city has paid for a water service to install and replenish as necessary an Alhambra water dispenser. While she’s grateful to have a home at all, Cromphout said she’s nevertheless concerned about how long the problem is taking to sort out.
“It’s an unseen disaster,” Cromphout said. “It’s going to take a long time and a lot of money to fix this problem.”
After two months of abiding by the prohibition on drinking the water, the family learned this week that they’re now not supposed to take baths or hot showers in it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow because they just got their Pacific Gas & Electric service restored on Dec. 15, she said.
Before that they spent three weeks huddled around space heaters and showering at a neighbor’s house, the only other home standing in their immediate neighborhood. Now the city tells them only to take short, lukewarm showers, and ventilate the area immediately afterward. No baths or hot tub use is recommended.
“For me that’s horrible,” Cromphout said of not being able to take a hot bath, “especially in this kind of weather.”
Recent test results are the reason for the new restrictions. While initial tests showed “slightly elevated” levels of benzene contamination, the city has been finding far higher contamination levels in isolated locations as it expanded its testing efforts.
California water regulations limit the amount of benzene in drinking water to 1 part per billion. But some of the more recent test results in the area have returned with levels as high as 918 parts per billion.
Since Dec. 12, there have been 87 test results in the area that confirmed the presence of benzene at levels higher than 1 part per billion, which is the maximum containment level (or MLC) for benzene in drinking water in the state.
There were four results over 500 parts per billion, three between 100 and 500, 13 between 25 and 100, 28 between 5 and 25, and 39 between 1 and 5, and dozens more that detected levels below 1 or nothing at all.
The city did not provide the dates of the tests, but said the highest four test results had come in recent weeks, triggering the additional precautions against bathing and hot water.
Three of the four highest readings came from water service lines to lots very close to one another off Southridge Drive. One was on Braken Court and two were on Bluesage Court.
The city did not provide the exact addresses of its test locations, but Bluesage only has a half-dozen or so homes. One used to be owned by Santa Rosa school board member Bill Carle.
“It certainly gives you cause for concern,” Carle said of the contamination.
If the water system is compromised, it makes Carle wonder what else is wrong with the lots. If burned system components really are to blame, why aren’t other parts of the city that were equally devastated having the same issues, he asks.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Carle, an attorney, said he wonders whether different materials were used in the construction of the infrastructure of Coffey Park, Wikiup and Fountaingrove. He urged the city to be completely transparent about the problem going forward.
“I think all of us want to be tracking this, and if we feel some level of concern, we’d potentially want to bring our own experts,” Carle said.
Real estate agent Tammra Borrall is listing a burned property on West Bristlecone Court for $299,000. She said she had not been told by the property owner about any issues with the water quality, which would be something that would have to be disclosed to future buyers. She said her client said she was unaware of the issue.
Burke said the city has been focused on the health of the people living in the homes, and hasn’t sent letters to owners of destroyed properties, though she said some of the information is on the recovery website.
City officials say they are confident the contamination is limited to the 184 acres in Fountaingrove.
Hundreds of samples from the area immediately surrounding the advisory areas and other parts of the city, such as Coffey Park, have found no issues. A single slightly elevated result was found east of the advisory area but did not return after that section of the system was flushed out, Burke said.
To ensure this remains the case, the city has isolated the contaminated area with a series of valves that allow water to flow in but not flow back out, Horenstein said. Water pressure in the area, which is about 600 hundred feet above the valley floor, is currently strong, but has had issues in the past.
The water actually going to the homes left standing contains levels below 1 part per billion, and that has been the case since the crisis began, with a single exception that was resolved with a component replacement, she said.
Lower contamination at homes left standing makes some sense, Horenstein said.
Existing homes, and likely the immediate area and ground around them, would have been exposed to lower heat levels than those that burned, lending support to the idea that the heat from the fire is at fault, he said.
The problem is that test results don’t fully support the theory that burned components are solely to blame for the contamination, Horenstein said.
“The data is really still too uncertain and confusing to make those conclusions,” he said.
That’s because in some cases, the city has isolated an individual court, removed all the meters and replaced plastic service lines, flushed the system with fresh water, waited a while, retested, and found that benzene levels eventually crept back up again after an initial drop.
That would suggest something else is at play, he said.
Benzene is an organic compound that is formed from both human activities, such as gasoline production, and natural processes, such as forest fires.
It could be that the water mains, which are typically made of high-strength cement, or the service laterals, which are usually made of a high-density polyethylene, have somehow absorbed the benzene and are releasing it back into the water, he said.
It could also be that there are underground storage tanks in proximity to the compromised lines, Horenstein said, though he acknowledged that this seems less likely given the number of different hot spots identified by the tests. This area of Fountaingrove was largely pristine hillside until it was developed as homes in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s also possible that the low water pressure the area experienced during and immediately after the fire drew in contaminants, but nothing is conclusive.
“We know the cause of the contamination is the fire, but exactly how is what we’re trying to figure out,” Burke said.
The longer the problem persists and the longer the investigation fails to conclusively pinpoint a cause, the more likely it is that a full replacement of the water system in the area will be needed, Horenstein said.
“At this point, it seems possible if not likely that we may have to do a wholesale replacement of the majority of the infrastructure in that area,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.
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