Monday, November 11, 2013

Lake Worth, we have a water problem...

View of the corner of Pennsylvania and Columbia (click for larger image)
In order to conserve keystrokes, I will share correspondence with the City Commission, City Manager and our head of Water Utilities. All of this is public information. I will also summarize the telephone conversation I had with Larry Johnson, head of Water Utilities. This was sent yesterday and I am pleasantly surprised by the prompt responses. Nothing from the elected officials though.

From yesterday morning:

For the past week or more, city water personnel have come to the corner of Pennsylvania and Columbia and ritually opened the fire hydrant at what is the northwest corner of my yard. This has been done without a knock on the door, a flyer, a press release from the city - nothing. As I type this, water is pouring out the hydrant, flowing down the Columbia (River?). The only information I have been able to gather from the water department personnel is that the chlorine is at .02 in this area and it should be .04. This is after asking them - not after being told by them first. It is said that this area "must not be using enough water." Yesterday I was told, after asking, that the chlorine levels at the plant aren't right and that this will be going on for another week or so.

See picture below [above]. This is what it is doing now.

This is in addition to a new apparatus that was placed in the swale that can be seen at the left side of the picture. The light green device cycles every 24 hours and runs, like the fire hydrant is running now. Another "thing" that is green and also at the left of the picture was installed so that the water could be tested without having to come to my house - yes. Before this was installed, city employees would come to my house, unannounced and draw water from any convenient hose bib to get their water sample. I found out about this practice one morning about 6 months ago when I woke up and heard water running in the house. I find an employee taking a sample, and rubbing my eyes, asked him what he was doing. He said that this is a "dead" area at the end of the line and they need to sample the water. I told him I would appreciate being asked before or told about the practice before someone just walks up and starts using my outdoor faucets. He said that the city is about to install something that would eliminate the "need" to test the water at my house.

That is the equipment that appears in the left side of the picture. I know that is the city's property and you can do with it what you will, but it would have been nice to have some say in the placement of this device as it is in the most prominent location as it can be as you turn south on Pennsylvania from the Columbia (River).

I am a rational person and understand that you must test the water occasionally.  But this has now, officially, gotten out of control. 
  • If I was not asking about what was going on, I wouldn't know. The city is following standard procedure and making sure to do it's best not to communicate with residents about the situation and the solution.
  • Is there a public health risk? If not, why all the attention?
  • When the fire hydrant is on, there is very little water pressure to the point where doing wash, cooking, flushing toilets is close to impossible. The fire hydrant is open for hours at a time.
  • Aren't we supposed to be conserving water? What message does it send, especially when the city sends no message formally, that it is o.k. that the city lets thousands of gallons spew forth from a fire hydrant for hours at a time or another device designed to do the same thing no more that 25 feet away.
  • Are we still getting water from West Palm Beach?
Can the City please inform people through whatever channels - smoke signals, morse code, drum beats, signal flares - whatever you are most comfortable using, to inform residents about what is going on.

Thank you!

Response from City Manager Bornstein:


I will have Larry Johnson our new Water/Sewer Utilities director explain in greater detail, but here's the basics.

There is a tank on the north end where the water goes before being distributed.  When the State regulations changed our disinfectant process (chemicals) the chlorination equipment at the tank was removed.  This was done a couple years earlier.  The chlorine levels required to meet Health Dept regs are difficult to maintain in your neighborhood as it is at the end of the line.   Unfortunately the only method available is to draw newly treated water into that area through opening the lines.  It is inefficient, problematic for the residents near the hydrants and makes us look crazy.  Larry has only been on board a couple of months and this is one of the issues he brought to me.  He is in the process of fixing the chlorine levels by reinstalling some equipment on the tank.  He will give you a better update on the ETA of the changes.  He will also correct any technically wrong statements I have made above.

I am so sorry for the situation and I hope we will have it resolved soon.

As to the rest of your email, there are 'fires' like this continually all over the City.  Our goal is the fix them without being told to before someone complains.   It is our responsibility and our job.  Our citizens should not have to waste their time grappling with what should be considered the basics. Your time is better spent living, working, and creating a healthy economy.

There is so much distrust with the City organization, albeit based on experience over years.  I spend a lot of time telling citizens something they have already been promised by a parade of staff.  Most are skeptical and some are just downright bitter.  We find ourselves running hard and fast to fix as many things as we can to earn their trust.  However,  We need to do a better job handling situations like this hydrant and that is our goal.

We are gradually catching up and we will become that responsive, proactive entity the residents deserve and information will be relevant and reliable.  The coming year will see some really cool (industry standard :o)) interface technology being rolled out.  But like everything else here, we are having to concurrently fix the internal processes or even create them before allowing this flow of information and response to occur.  Ugh.

In Public Service,

From Larry Johnson, Water Utilities Director:

Mr Blackman
Both of the devices recently installed near your home are intended to maintain water quality in a less obtrusive manner.  One is an automatic flusher that flushes a controlled amount of water during the night.  The automatic flusher does conserve water compared to manual flushing.
The other provides a location where required water samples can be taken without going onto private property.
Unfortunately we need to flush hydrants manually until repairs can be made to the disinfection system.
I will discuss this with you further at your convenience.  Let me know if you would like to talk by phone or in person.
Thank you
Larry Johnson

This morning, upon awakening to the fire hydrant spewing fresh water again, I called Mr. Johnson and left a message on his cell phone. He called me back and we had a nice conversation. I also appreciate him getting back to me on a typical government holiday. My major concern is the wasting of treated, fresh water that we are told that we have to conserve and how long this flushing at the hydrant will go on. It is clear that the automatic flusher is here to stay and I am o.k. with that, I guess.

This is what I was told. The water when it leaves the plant is fine and has the proper chlorine residual. In fact, they have increased the amount of chlorine to combat just this situation. The situation is that by the time it gets up into the water tower by the ballfields and is distributed through our old 2" and 4" steel lines, the chlorine residual declines. This is especially true for areas that are at the "end of the line", like College Park. Stagnant water loses chlorine as it sits. The situation is made worse by the condition of those old lines.

In order to address the problem, the city plans to install chlorine injectors by the NW water tower. This will be in the "next three to six months." In the meantime, daily flushing of the hydrant will continue to make sure that the chlorine residual is where it needs to be. If we don't do this, we would have to boil our water to cook or drink.

I asked how much water is being lost when this flushing occurs. Mr. Johnson said that they do not know, but it is "a lot." They are working to calculate the total lost on a monthly basis but aren't there yet. The automatic flush is much more efficient, but is not enough to do the job.

An alert neighbor reminded me of the $70 million dollar bond issue that was designed for the upgrade and maintenance of our water and electric distribution systems. Some money from that issue went to that purpose, but a lot of it went to fund the reverse osmosis plant.

Mr. Johnson thought that the needed upgrades citywide could be funded through the Lake Worth 2020 program - that's been talked about a lot here on this blog. And, he added, we are no longer getting water from West Palm Beach.

The following video is from yesterday's flushing. I put the video to Handel's Water Music, supplemented with Music for the Royal Fireworks and threw in the Hallelujah Chorus for good measure. I find the sound of running water therapeutic and I am sharing this as a public service. I just wonder how many gallons this actually is, multiplied by 30 days, multiplied by three to six months.