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Title: Browns Point Water System a Mess Old pipes, balky valves partially to blame for disastrous 'breaks'
Kim Eckart; April 24, 2000
Denise Bessette found four inches of water on the floor of her Browns Point massage therapy studio.
Up the street, Kelly Oathout flipped on the faucet to a gush of dirty water. The same thing happened less than a mile away at Gary Hunter's house, where the toilet spontaneously surged to life.
Other Browns Point residents have similar stories: of water spewing from hot-water tanks, of damaged basements, of an indoor sprinkler system that began fighting an imaginary fire.
All that happened over a week ago. And it wasn't the first time.
While the exact cause isn't clear, Tacoma Water officials say one thing's for certain: The internal workings of the Browns Point water system need a fix.
"We can't afford our system to be that delicate," deputy water superintendent John Kirner said.
Improving it, he said, likely means installing an automatic pressure-relief mechanism or forcing the system to operate at a lower pressure.
That wouldn't require any additional direct cost to customers, he added.
Tacoma's water system generally runs with 40 to 80 pounds per square inch of pressure. Browns Point pipes currently operate at 93 pounds per square inch.
On the night of April 3, the pressure rushed to 120 pounds. A water main broke. A pressure-reducing valve got stuck. And water spewed from pipes, tanks and faucets around the neighborhood.
That was the same night that Browns Point firefighters conducted their regular training drill, which once a month involves tapping into fire hydrants. The department had conducted those same drills on a night last August when a similar water-pressure surge occurred.
Officials with Pierce County Fire District 13, for their part, say their water usage is part of the business of protecting the public. In a letter to Tacoma Water following this month's incident, deputy chief Shawn McDonald said the department wouldn't take the blame but offered to refrain from using hydrants on the Tacoma Water system until the utility fixes the problem.
Two other water systems serve the area and can be used when drills require hydrants, McDonald said.
"I'd hate to see an emergency come up and we'd have to use a hydrant and then damage people's property again," McDonald said. "I really hope they can get this fixed."
While use of the hydrant may have tripped the system last summer - and possibly this time, too, Kirner agreed it shouldn't have occurred in the first place.
"It shouldn't happen ever," he said. "The fire department has to be able to go out there and use the system. Because of what happened last summer, we didn't think it was something that was going to repeat itself, but obviously this is a longer-term problem that has to be dealt with."
A couple of factors affect water flow to the area, Kirner said.
Most of the pipes that serve Browns Point are part of an older, private system that Tacoma Water acquired two decades ago - and one that sits at the end of Tacoma's municipal water lines.
That can enable high pressure, Kirner said. "Think of a line of moving traffic, and the car in front suddenly stops. Everything behind it piles up," he said.
The storage tank for the area sits uphill off Slayden Road, which, because of the topography, means water flows down to the neighborhoods at a higher speed and with greater force, Kirner said.
No other part of the city is in such a position relative to the water system, he added. Still, the utility can take some measures to relieve the problem.
Browns Point residents hope so.
Bessette rents ground-floor space in the Browns Point Town Center for her Balancing Touch therapeutic massage studio. The hot-water tank for all of the center's first-floor units sits inside Bessette's back office.
It was there that Bessette said water shot through the expansion tank (which was installed after the pressure surge last August), through the ceiling and then streamed down into the rest of the rooms. A computer on the office floor was ruined.
Bessette closed the studio for a week, so that baseboards could be ripped up and the floors and drywall aired out.
"I'm tired of not being able to work, of having my property damaged," she said.
Altogether, repairs to Town Center property (including the hot water tanks) have cost between $20,000 and $50,000 over the past year - much of which was covered by insurance, said David Kovanen, president of the Caledonia Corp., which owns the center.
That doesn't mean insurance claims solve the problem, Kovanen said. Tacoma Water should take care of it altogether.
Oathout, who heads the Browns Point Improvement Club, said neighbors will continue to monitor the problem and press Tacoma Water for solutions.
"It's hard to say that a fire department could shut off a fire hydrant and make that kind of damage happen," he said. "We're in no man's land out here."
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Staff writer Kim Eckart covers Tacoma. Reach her at 253-597-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), April 24, 2000