Nearly a year after the Tubbs fire melted water pipes in Fountaingrove and contaminated sections of the area’s water system with benzene, the city is optimistic it will soon be able to notify residents the problem has been resolved.
The most recent tests made before another round of repairs showed only trace amounts of the cancer-causing chemical in the area’s water system, at levels under state-mandated safety limits, according to Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water and engineering resources.
To clean out the compromised system, crews have replaced more than 440 water lines in and around the affected area of the hillside Santa Rosa neighborhood where more than 1,400 homes were destroyed in the Tubbs fire. That work also included changing out three water mains and eight fire hydrants that were tainted with benzene, a volatile hydrocarbon commonly found in plastics and gasoline.
The city is preparing to lift a water quality advisory that warned residents in a 184-acre section of Fountaingrove to refrain from drinking or bathing in city water to avoid exposure to the toxin. The advisory, in place since November, applied to residents of 13 homes that survived the October 2017 firestorm.
Worrisome levels of benzene were also detected in some surrounding areas as far out as Coffey Park as the city attempted to find the mysterious source of the benzene, spurring additional attention and replacement of water lines.
“We’re continuing to follow the data, and the data is showing that we have had water that meets all regulated compliance for a couple of months now,” Burke said. “So now that we’ve removed the contaminant, that will restore the water quality, but we’ll continue to monitor it and ensure we haven’t missed something.”
Final sample results are due this week from testing on three streets — Foxtail Court, Stony Oak Court and Bluesage Court — in the Fountaingrove advisory area where benzene has persisted in small but safe levels.
Anticipating the test results will show the contamination problem has been resolved, the city is hosting a community meeting Wednesday night to explain its plans moving forward. The water quality advisory could be lifted as soon as early October, Burke said.
That’s in stark contrast from prior concerns the entire water system would need replacing, at a cost estimated at more than $40 million earlier this summer. The overhaul would need two years if done quickly, city officials said, putting a cloud over rebuilding efforts in the area.
But instead, the city opted for a phased plan that started with swapping the water lines and associated components to see if that resolved the problem. Burke said the work cost roughly $8 million.
“We have been testing and re-testing, and continue to do so,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “We’re obviously very happy that what looked like a $43 million fix looks like about $8 million now.”
The city hopes the final cost will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through disaster recovery grants.
If that funding is not available, a bill authored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, would steer FEMA mitigation dollars toward rebuild projects from the 2017 wildfires.
Once the water advisory is lifted, Burke said the city’s water department will continue benzene testing for at least a year to make sure residents are safe.