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.”