Five years after the Camp Fire, the town of Paradise is still replacing damaged water lines. But it’s been able to do it in a way that hasn’t slowed down reconstruction.
Mickey Rich can still remember the look on people’s faces when leaders of the Paradise Irrigation District announced that it would take at least three years to repair the town’s fire-ravaged water system.
It was March of 2019, and nearly 300 people had turned out to hear the district’s plan for removing the toxic stew of cancer-causing materials that had leached into pipes during the deadliest fire in modern California history.
“We saw the looks on their faces and the sighs and the anguished sound in the crowd,” said Rich, the district’s assistant manager. “And we went back to the table.”
Five years after the fire, the water district is still ripping up damaged service lines and installing more advanced water meters aimed at preventing damage in the future. But that grim statistic hides a remarkable success story.
After the meeting, officials went back to the drawing board and came up with a new recovery plan that could take place in tandem with reconstruction efforts. Within four months of the meeting, they had begun restoring service to standing homes.
The water district also rolled out a testing and public information program so effective that recent surveys have shown residents trust Paradise tap water more than they trust tap water in general.
To get where it is today, the district had to battle state and federal agencies not just for funding assistance, but also for support in making the types of repairs it felt was necessary to ensure water was truly safe.
“It’s really making sure as a city or a district or whoever is in control, that you’re making decisions that you feel are right for your citizens,” said Kevin Phillips, who headed the Paradise Irrigation District in the aftermath of the fires.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed more than 11,000 structures in Paradise alone, staff at the Paradise Irrigation District knew the water system had been damaged.
What they didn’t know was the extent, Phillips said.
Before it could do anything else, the district had to turn off the water at every single meter in town. Then it turned the water on slowly and began testing the system. It wasn’t until Dec. 18 — five weeks after the fire — that the district started getting its first water quality test results back.
When a water system experiences depressurization on the scale that Paradise and Lahaina’s did, it creates a vacuum that sucks contamination — chemicals from melted service lines and toxic ash from destroyed homes — back in.
Early tests in Paradise came back positive for benzene, a carcinogen also found in small amounts in part of Santa Rosa, a town that had experienced significant wildfire damage the year before.
What Paradise found in further rounds of testing was that there was little rhyme or reason to which service lines were contaminated with volatile organic chemicals or VOCs — a broad category of chemicals that are dangerous for people to ingest.
There are no state or federal mandates for what VOCs to test for in a water distribution system, Phillips said, adding to the complexity of decisions that individual water districts have to make after a disaster.
Phillips recalls being told by one state agency that his district was being too conservative with health and safety standards and that people could drink water at the level of contamination Paradise was experiencing for 70 years before developing cancer.
“We held to our guns and we held true to who we were. And that’s really the only reason why I think at the end of the day Paradise can say ‘your water is clean,'” Phillips said.
Most of the contamination was discovered in service lines, which run from the system’s main lines to individual properties. Nearly all the main lines were fine — a situation similar to what Lahaina has been finding. That’s likely because the main pipes are larger and have water flowing through them more often, decreasing the amount of time that contamination can sit and leach into the pipes, Phillips said.
When VOCs sit for too long, it becomes nearly impossible to remove the contamination without replacing the pipe.
The initial recovery plan for the Paradise system called for a systematic approach to testing and replacing service lines. Basically, it meant working from one end of the system to the other, stopping to make a repair when contamination was found.
That approach would have been the most efficient, but it also would have meant that some customers wouldn’t get service for years.
The teams in Paradise found that they were able to restore water to individual properties as they were rebuilt or became habitable. As long as the pipes feeding into that area remained pressurized, contamination in the pipes leading to nearby burned properties didn’t migrate, said Andrew Whelton an engineering professor at Purdue University who helped the Paradise Irrigation District develop a recovery plan.
That meant the district was able to adopt a “checkerboard” approach where it could restore water first to standing homes and then to properties that had filed for a building permit.
“We got to the point where as soon as a building permit was pulled and approved, we went over there and replaced the service lateral so that it was ready for them,” Rich said.
Testing every service line in Paradise for contamination would have been incredibly time-consuming — and very expensive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides critical funding for infrastructure repairs after such disasters, wouldn’t pay for much of the testing, Rich said.
“They will help you fix it when you know what’s wrong, but they won’t help you figure out what’s wrong,” Rich said.
Lahaina is still determining how much of its system it will need to replace. The Paradise district decided fairly early on that it had found so much contamination in the service lines that the best course was to replace every one in the district.
Funding was a challenge. Rich said FEMA wanted the district to prove every line was damaged before replacing it. After lengthy discussions, the district was able to conduct enough tests to statistically prove that at least 50% of the service lines in the system needed to be replaced. FEMA then provided funding for just under 50% of the total through what is called a capped improvement project, meaning funding for the repairs is limited to a certain dollar figure overall.
It costs about $5,000 and takes a half a day to replace a service line running from the main line to a customer’s meter, Rich said. The district is also installing brass meters with backflow preventers at each site to make sure contamination from an individual line doesn’t enter the larger system.
A second service line, which goes from the meter to the customer’s taps, was the responsibility of property owners to test and repair. Insurance generally covers that for homes that were damaged or destroyed.
Eventually, the district reached a settlement with PG&E — the electrical company found liable for the Camp Fire. In the meantime, the FEMA funding — and some creative financing — allowed the district to get working. State funding helped pay for other repairs not covered by FEMA, including the $9 million needed to replace a water tank that burned.
The district has also needed to expand its staff to deal with all the testing and repairs, while also losing much of its customer base. Only about a third of Paradise has been rebuilt and the district currently has about a $2 million annual budget shortfall.
Thus far, it has not increased water rates. Customers pay a service fee of around $43 a month plus charges for the amount of water they use. People who don’t have an active service line but are still members of the district pay about half that. The district has been able to do that for the time being with the $100 million settlement it received from PG&E.
To break even in the future, the district will need the population of Paradise to return to what it was before the fire.
While Paradise was replacing its water system, it continued to test the water lines, checking about every 500 feet in a system of 173 miles. It also continued to test the main lines for two years after the fire.
The water district has now moved beyond installing service lines to properties with building permits and is about a year and a half away from replacing every service line. It’s also trying to get ahead of the town’s repaving project so that it won’t need to dig up newly rebuilt roads.
One of the biggest lessons the district learned during its recovery process was to overcommunicate with the public, Phillips said. Water officials held regular town halls, posted reports online, sent out a biweekly newsletter, published a map showing every spot it had tested and shared openly about what they knew and didn’t know about VOCs in the system.
That created a lot of trust and community buy-in, Phillips said.
The district also did so much testing that it could essentially draw a map from the treatment plant to the property of a customer with a restored line and show the results of water tests taken every 500 feet along the way.
“Paradise brilliantly communicated with their community,” said Purdue’s Whelton. “The water became a foundation of the rebuilding process, and people could feel confident in the methodical way that Paradise followed evidence towards bringing back safe water.”
Following the evidence is important, but can also be tricky given the ambiguity of federal guidelines for testing and repairing water systems after a fire. State guidance also varies dramatically.
“There is no state agency that is adequately prepared to respond to these things, nor is the federal government prepared either,” Whelton said.
The best path forward is to build on the experiences of other agencies that have gone through it, he said.
“We are building our way back by using the knowledge gained from these places to help people anticipate what the issues are, find them faster, rebuild faster,” he said.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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