Fired up over water

Residents concerned about lack of water for emergencies

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Seven neighborhoods in the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District have inadequate fire flow, according to a report recently published by the district.

Homeowners in one of those areas, Ridge Road, think the district short-changed the water system when it was installed in 1974, has known about the inadequate fire flow since 1981 and should be responsible for paying to bring the system up to the city's fire-code standards.

"Fire flow" refers to the amount of water and water pressure that comes out of a fire hydrant. It is a way to gauge the amount of water and pressure needed to fight a fire. The necessary fire flow depends on the density of development, the building materials and the use of the buildings.

Ridge Road homeowners said they were not alerted about the lack of available fire flow until March, two years after a home in the area burned to the ground. Fire officials told the Steamboat Today in December 2002 that they struggled with water pressure when attempting to put out the fire.

"We are upset, because it is a safety issue, we are upset they didn't tell us about it, we are upset we don't have the fire flow, we are upset they are trying to make us pay for it," Ridge Road homeowner Patrick O'Rourke said.

In the report, completed earlier this month, the Mount Werner Water District identified seven areas with low fire flow: Ridge Road, Anthony Circle, Laurel Lane, Timothy Drive, a portion of Ski Trail Lane, Longthong Road and part of Burgess Creek Road.

The report also proposed ways to improve the fire flow, but the district has yet to determine who should pay for those improvements.

District board member Jon Halverson, who led the committee that wrote the report, noted that, at the time the water lines were installed, the fire flow met insurance standards and no fire-code standards existed for Mount Werner Water District.

He also said the 2002 fire on Ridge Road had nothing to do with the amount of fire flow but with the need for an automatic switch at the nearby pump station.

"There has never been a fire in the district at which there was insufficient water," he said. "That includes the 2002 fire."

Two district lawyers, special council Matt Dalton and longtime district attorney Tom Sharp, said the district does not have any legal liability for damages resulting from an inadequately designed water system. The absence of liability applies if the design did not meet standards at the time the facility was constructed or if it fails to meet current standards.

"We were told we have neither the obligation nor the responsibility for the situation on Ridge Road and other low-flow areas," district board President Tim Borden said. "We have come to no conclusion of what is going to be done and who is going to pay for it."

Ridge Road homeowners also point to a conflict of interest with the developer of the subdivision, Don Valentine, who was involved in developing six of the seven subdivisions identified in the report. Valentine also sat on the water board from 1967 to 2004, when many of the water lines were installed.

Valentine could not be contacted for an interview, but district members stated in the report, and later in an interview with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, that Valentine had no conflict of interest. They said that, like many special districts in the state, the initial members were made up of the few landowners and developers who had an interest in bringing water and sewer infrastructure to the land surrounding the ski area.

"This was a very small area with very few people who had economic interests. The primary developers were the obvious people to serve on the district's board. Who else would have an interest in it?" Halverson said.

The beginning

In 1969, Sunray Land Corp., whose president was Don Valentine, platted and subdivided Ridge Road into 42 lots. Five years later, Mount Werner Water District, using money mostly from tap fees and bonds, installed the water lines in the Ridge Road area.

In 1971, the district hired engineers to complete a master plan. The master plan included a water line to go from a pump station off of Burgess Creek Road to the top of Ridge Road, follow the winding road and loop back to a water line along Burgess Creek Road.

Instead, the district signed off on plans that had the pipe dead-ending at the bottom of Ridge Road.

"Those developers were all--owed to put in something less than set out in the master plan," homeowners' attorney James Montgomery said. "Is it fair to put the cost on the homebuilders, or is it a problem the district and community is willing to address?"

Although it is a guide for in----stalling infrastructure, the master plan is not a legally binding document, Sharp said. Water and sanitation districts do not have timelines about when to complete the improvements shown in master plans and are allowed to make deviations from them, he said.

Water lines that dead-end have less fire flow than a loop system, which brings in water from two directions. All seven of the low fire-flow areas have dead-end pipelines, District Manager Bob Stoddard said.

The report notes that small pipe diameter, high elevation and geographic hardships in looping the water line also contribute to the low fire flow.

City Director of Public Works Jim Weber said a looped system was a fundamental element of designing water systems, even in the 1970s.

"Design standards always discourage dead-end lines. When there's an opportunity, it should be looped," Weber said. "Redundancy is a wonderful thing."

Halverson said his research did not uncover an answer as to why the water system was not looped.

"The most likely answer was there wasn't any money for it," Halverson said.

Even looping the system would not solve Ridge Road's low fireflow problems, however. The district said a water tank or another pump station is needed.

"Looping in and of itself wouldn't bring the fire flow up to the current standards," Halverson said. "It would help."

The warning signs

From the start, Ridge Road homeowners said the district showed a disregard for fire protection.

Montgomery points to a 1974 letter between then-district President John Fetcher and Wright-McLaughlin Engineers.

Montgomery said Fetcher re----quested the engineers get several water projects under contract and noted that the board had decided to run a 4-inch line from the pump station to the top of Ridge Road.

"It is clearly understood that this system will not supply standard municipal fire protection, but we should include an appropriate number of fire hydrants," the letter states.

The pipe that eventually was installed was 6 inches in diameter, but Ridge Road homeowners think the comment sheds light on the mindset of the district at the time.

"It is purely a safety issue," Patrick O'Rourke said. "We do not have adequate fire flow, and we haven't had it from Day 1. And they have known it."

In 1981, Dismuke & Dismuke Engineers did an "Available Fire Flow Study" for the district. In that report, the engineers listed five problem areas, among them Ridge Road and Laurel Lane.

The report noted that Ridge Road had adequate fire flow for low densities and recommended development to be limited based on the capacity of the nearby Thunderhead tank. It also called the area hydraulically limited.

Since the 1981 report, the number and size of the homes on Ridge Road have increased, requiring more fire flow, Halverson said. He said the district should not be expected to have designed a water system to account for the once-unimaginable scale of development.

In 1993, the city adopted the Uniform Fire Code, which set standards for fire flow. Three years later, a second fire-flow study identified fire-flow rates throughout the district.

The two documents could have been used to compare what areas within the district were in compliance, but Borden said he doesn't remember the board ever discussing the study.

As an engineer in 2000, Stoddard said he updated those numbers and recognized several areas that had fire flows below the code. Stoddard became the manager of the district in 2001 and brought the problem areas before the board in 2005.

"In 2000, we identified those areas. There was nothing new. The zones had been discussed in other studies," Stoddard said. "I don't have an answer for you as to why it didn't come up earlier."

At the time the water lines were installed in 1974, the fire flow only had to meet the insurance standard of 500 gallons a minute. The lines installed provided 750 gpm.

Under current fire code standards, single-family homes less than 3,600 square feet in size must have a minimum fire flow of 1,000 gpm. The requirement increases substantially with the size of the home.

The board contacted Ridge Road homeowners, where the problem seemed to be the most urgent, and met with them in March. The board also published an ad in the Steamboat Pilot & Today that noted that several neighborhoods had issues with low fire flow.

In May, the board formed a committee, and it completed a draft of its report in August.

Areas within the city's water system also have low fire-flow problems, Weber said. He pointed to Steamboat Springs Airport and the Huckleberry Lane neighborhood off Fish Creek Falls Road as two examples. Weber said he did not know whether the areas were below the fire code but said the city has been exploring ways to improve the water pressure in the area and who should pay for it.

"I believe it is not something by any means unique to the Mount Werner Water District," Borden said about low fire flow. "It exists in many districts within Colorado."

Who is to pay?

Ridge Road homeowners think they should have known about the low fire flow sooner. They point to the Dec. 15, 2002, fire at 2915 Ridge Road. According to articles in the Steamboat Today, fire officials determined the cause of the fire to be a construction heater and noted that the fire had time to grow before it was reported.

Days after the fire, city officials told the Steamboat Today they had a limited amount of water and struggled with low water pressure.

Ridge Road homeowner Jim Randall said fire crews had to wait for Mount Werner Water officials to come to a pump station and manually turn on a switch to increase the water pressure.

Fire Marshall Jay Muhme could not be reached for comment.

That manual switch is still there today, Randall said. Mount Werner Water District officials said Thursday that they are looking at putting in an automatic switch.

The Ridge Road homeowners also think it is the responsibility of the Mount Werner Water District to pay to install a looped water system. They point to the $6.2 million the district has in reserves and say it would cost about $4 million to supply the seven neighborhoods with adequate fire flow.

"We would like them to fix all the low fire-flow areas, and we want them to pay for it, because they have $6 million," Ridge Road Community Association President Kathy O'Rourke said.

District officials said they have not made the decision about who should pay for the improvements and want public feedback before deciding. At Thursday's board meeting, the suggestion was made that the decision should be taken to a public vote.

O'Rourke has one more request for Mount Werner Water District:

"We would love them to take responsibility," she said. "But I don't think that will ever happen."

For Ridge Road homeowners, the situation is especially frustrating because one of their neighborhood's developers, Valentine, was a longtime board member of the water district.

According to a March document from the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, Valentine was listed as one of the lead developers on six of the seven neighborhoods identified as having inadequate fire flow.

O'Rourke said Valentine, as a member of the Mount Werner Water District, signed off on the 1971 master plan for the installation of waterlines in a subdivision he had developed with Sunray Land Corporation.

In its report, the Mount Werner Water District stated the original subdividers were not involved in decisions concerning the installation of water and sewer facilities as subdividers. However, it noted that some of the principal subdividers owned property when they served on the board.

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