April 16, 2011 – Bend Bulletin – Sisters water debate turns to fire safety

This article was published on: 04/18/11 12:00 AM

Sisters water debate turns to fire safety

Fire district chief backs plan for rate increase, citing hydrant concerns

By Patrick Cliff / The Bulletin
Published: April 16. 2011 4:00AM PST

SISTERS — The long-running debate over a proposal to hike water rates in Sisters took a new course when the chief of the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District backed the plan for safety reasons.

In his letter to Sisters City Council, Chief Tay Robertson describes a March test of three hydrants that revealed substandard water pressure in some parts of town. The city’s water system is a patchwork of new and old pipes. It is the latter, some of which were installed in the 1940s, and Sisters’ oldest well that worry Robertson.

Backers of a rate increase argue Sisters’ aging water system needs upgrades. Opponents, many of whom accept the need for better infrastructure, want to delay the rate hike until the economy recovers.

Since the release of a 2005 water study, the fire district has wanted system improvements, Robertson said in an interview.

The city has made major water infrastructure improvements since the study was completed, in particular adding a new well and pump. This year, the city expects to complete pipe replacement projects around downtown and on Sisters’ western edge.

Still, says Robertson, a problem remains.

“We’ve been watching them try to upgrade it, and we’re still not getting there,” he said.

In his letter, Robertson writes that the city’s current water system fails to meet flow rates in the state fire code. The consequences of that are at least twofold: Insurance rates across Sisters could jump, and fighting a large fire could be difficult.

Delaying changes will only make the system worse, he maintains.

“Our concern is that without upgrades, the water system will further degrade,” Robertson writes.

All three recent tests showed flow rates above the base state requirements. At one fire hydrant, near the Edge of the Pines neighborhood, the flow rate was 1,891 gallons per minute. A hydrant near the city’s industrial section produced water at about 1,700 gallons per minute, as did a hydrant on Sisters’ western edge.

According to the state fire code, a home of up to 3,600 square feet must be protected by a hydrant with a flow rate of at least 1,000 gallons per minute. Commercial buildings require at least 1,500 gallons per minute, a number that increases with factors that include the size and purpose of a structure.

Dave Wheeler, fire marshal of the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District, said the results worry him. If a fire required two hydrants, the system could not handle the demand and so would not meet code, he said.

Inside the Edge of the Pines the flow dips to 500 gallons per minute, an amount half of what the code requires, according to Wheeler.

The district determines how many hydrants can be opened in one area by using two pressure measurements: static and residual.

After a hydrant is opened, at least 20 pounds per square inch of residual pressure must be left in the system, Wheeler said. Near the Edge of the Pines, only one hydrant can be open under that standard.

Only the hydrant test near the city’s northern industrial area showed two hydrants could be opened at once, according to the district’s tests.

City Councilor Sharlene Weed recently was skeptical about Robertson’s letter, wondering what had changed since the 2005 water study, which deemed fire flow capacity “generally adequate.” But the report hedged on four-inch water lines — like those in the Edge of the Pines area — as having “low capabilities for fire protection.” The study concluded that such lines “need to be replaced because of age and service to residents, and will provide major benefit to fire capabilities throughout the City… the duration and reliability of adequate fire flows is limited, and continued growth will further stress the system.”

Sisters’ population probably has not grown much since the middle of the last decade, but construction continued apace for a few years after. City officials have said that building growth has put an increased pressure on the system.

Beginning sometime around 2000, the city began issuing more than two dozen home building permits a year. The housing construction boom appears to have peaked in 2005. Between that year and 2008, Sisters issued a total of 296 home building permits, according to city data.

In 2009, housing permits fell to just seven.

For much of the last decade, commercial permits were being pulled at a fairly steady rate of between four and eight a year. In 2006, the year after the study, 29 commercial permits were issued. Construction apparently plummeted after that, with a total of 11 permits issued over the next three years.

The new pipes should handle the city for decades to come, said Public Works Director Paul Bertagna.

“All of these projects are replacing old, undersized water lines,” Bertagna said. “We want these lines to be in the ground for the next 30, 40, 50 years.”

The state’s fire code does not address pipe sizes for water flow, but a city the size of Sisters would today probably install water pipes at least 10 inches wide, according to Jason Green, executive director of the Oregon Association of Water Utilities.

The four-inch pipes in Sisters are made of steel or cement, and the newest of those dates to the early 1970s. Evaluating water systems has grown more complex since then, Green said.

“Our attention to fire and safety has increased in the last 20 or 30 years,” Green said.

The effect of Robertson’s letter on councilors is unclear. Weed, for example, remained unconvinced by his argument. She does not dispute that new pipes would improve the fire flow, but maintains the system is not at a crisis point. Installing new pipes in Edge of the Pines would cost the city about $459,000. To fund that, the city needs to raise rates, something Weed believes should be done once the economy improves.

“If there was an emergency, I’d say ‘yes,’ ” Weed said. “If we don’t have to, let’s wait.”

Patrick Cliff can be reached at 541-633-2161 or at pcliff@bendbulletin.com.

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