Water in Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood is safe for drinking and bathing, city officials said Thursday.
The city lifted the water quality advisory in place since the historic Tubbs wildfire in October 2017 melted water pipes in the hilly neighborhood and contaminated sections of the water system with benzene, which can cause cancer.
Residents living in the advisory area of Fountaingrove, where about 1,600 homes burned in the most destructive fire in California history, will get individual notices from the city about the water safety.
Recent water tests in the neighborhood showed traces of benzene, but at levels lower than state-mandated safety limits. The city said in a statement “the water continues to meet all state and federal standards for safe drinking water.”
Water testing will continue for at least a year to ensure safe water conditions, city officials said. Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water resources, said the city will continue sharing with residents the results from subsequent tests.
Sampling from 65 fire hydrants and three water sample stations will occur every two weeks for two months, Burke said. After that, as long as the water shows no contamination, Burke said sampling will be done monthly for three months, then twice more in the next six months.
City utility crews have replaced water lines to more than 350 properties in Fountaingrove in the water advisory area and replaced nearly a quarter-mile of the water main. City workers also removed other water system equipment in the neighborhood that showed signs of benzene contamination, which investigators determined stemmed from plastic pipes melted in the fire and absorbed into the water system.
The water advisory was in place for almost a year in a 184-acre section of Fountaingrove where city officials had warned residents against drinking the water or bathing with it.
City officials hope the $8 million cost to repair the water system and rid the contamination will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That’s far less than the $43 million estimate the city received to replace the entire system.
When flames hit Fountaingrove in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2017, water pressure dropped so sharply that firefighting was all but impossible. Many of the 10 water tanks serving the neighborhood — one of which was empty and another was on limited use because of seismic concerns — were completely drained that day about three hours after the fire started in Calistoga.
The city hired an engineering consulting firm in January to do an analysis of its water system performance during the fire, which destroyed about 3,100 Santa Rosa homes in a matter of hours, and ways it could be improved.
The consultant’s report released in early September said the sharp decline in water pressure was due to the volume of water gushing from residential sprinkler systems, garden hoses and showers.
The water system problems like faulty backup generators and insufficient tank volume were not significant contributors to the pressure drop, according to the report.
The consultant, under contract with the city for up to $98,000, recommended finding a way to remotely shut off water lines, among other fixes.