Lab testing completed Thursday revealed no contamination in Philomath's water system and an alert asking residents to boil drinking water was lifted at around 12:30 p.m.
The news ended a 24-hour period of uncertainty over just how safe the city's water was coming out of local taps in homes and businesses.
"We issued the boil water notice for the whole city just as a precautionary measure so we could get the repair done, flush the lines, get the whole system back up, take the water samples, take them to the lab, get them back and then get the OK that everything was OK," City Manager Chris Workman said Thursday afternoon.
The situation grew out of a planned water shutdown for waterline maintenance on Wednesday in the Marlon, James and Newton streets vicinity of town. With such a shutdown, a mandatory 24-hour water boil notice goes out to just those in the neighborhood who are impacted.
"Anytime we're going to open up the system to the atmosphere, it's a required boil water notice for that surrounding area, even though we go in, do the repair, flush the whole line, put the new water in," Workman said. "Once the new water's in, we have to sample that water and that's the 24-hour period it typically takes to get it to the lab and get it back."
Working with contractor Emery & Sons, the planned repair was made but then a waterline leak was detected requiring more work. Public Works Director Kevin Fear said his department then started receiving phone calls at around 9 a.m. Wednesday from residents in the western part of town. Not long after, the water treatment plant operator called to report pressure had dropped to about 36 pounds per square inch. The pressure usually runs at 105 psi.
On top of the waterline leak, the city also had other situations that factored in. First, the city's water treatment plant was offline because of high turbidity in the water.
"When we get a lot of rainfall, it kicks up all the silt and dirt and everything in the river and so we have to take the treatment plant offline and we rely on either the 11th Street well or we rely on the Rock Creek intertie until the river kinda settles down," Workman said.
However, the Rock Creek intertie has been inaccessible to Philomath for more than a month because of maintenance. That left the 11th Street well.
"On a cool day in November, it's typically not a problem but just in this case, it wasn't able to keep up with the demand that was on the system at the time," Workman said. "So it caused the pressure in the entire system to drop."
Fear said Public Works contacted Corvallis to open an intertie valve to be able to send a little bit of water back toward Philomath. No pump was needed with gravity providing enough pressure to boost the system.
But before all of that happened, a lot of spots in town had fallen below 20 psi. That's when a mandatory boil water notice must go out.
"When your system pressure falls below 20 pounds, you have to issue 'boil water' and take samples," Fear said. "We knew we were at 36 at the water plant and everybody along that area of Main Street and Applegate were probably in the 30 psi area, so we were probably OK. But trying to pick and choose each little area of town that might or might not hit 20 ...."
So to play it safe, a citywide boil water alert went out.
To try to spread the word, the city first notified newspapers, radio stations and television stations that can pass along the news to their readers, listeners and viewers. The city then asked the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce to send out the alert to its email list, which includes businesses and various organizations, including the school district.
City councilors were made aware of the situation and then at around 11 a.m., staff started calling restaurants to make sure they knew of the water alert with the lunch hour crowds coming. The school district sent out information through a phone blast to parents.
Philomath has an alert system in place but Workman said it's not heavily used with a limited number of people on the list to receive messages. Instead, Workman asked Benton County to send out the alert through its emergency management system.
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"They can take a geographic area and can basically draw a circle around Philomath and hit the phones in that area," Workman said.
Those who have cellphone plans registered or purchased with a Philomath address for more than the past year should've received the alert. Workman said the county purchases lists from the various cellphone carriers to be able to send out those types of messages.
"That's an annual thing — they buy those lists once a year, so if you bought your phone this year, your phone may not have been a part of that," Workman said. "You can go online to the county's website and you can register your phone and get added to that list."
Anyone from anywhere can register to be included on the county's list. For example, people who live outside of town but have elderly parents in Philomath could register to make sure they're made aware of any alerts that are issued.
Despite there not being any known contamination, the alerts do include some strong language.
"What we're required to put in the notice has strong language because we do take it seriously," Workman said. "We obviously don't want people to think this isn't a big deal. It is a big deal and potentially could be harmful to people's health. But there's the reality of the situation and the extreme possibility of what could happen.
"When you're dealing with the public at large, you always want to make sure that they're aware of that worst-case scenario and that's what you want to warn people of," he added, "and the same time, you understand that you're taking precautionary measures and doing everything you can to protect public health."
A few residents voiced concerns over how they heard about the alert through social media or an online news report and not directly from the city. But overall, Fear said residents responded with good questions and an understanding of the situation.
"We've had hundreds of calls and most everybody's been great; they've been very understanding," Fear said "Luckily, it's not an often occurrence for us like it can be in some cities. People have been great, I think, everybody I've talked to have been asking good questions."
The city flushed the system at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and took samples to a lab in Corvallis for testing. The results confirming no contamination came back at around 12:30 p.m. Thursday and the boil water notice was immediately lifted. Another phone blast through the county alert system went out along with emails to media and the chamber.
Workman said that the city is taking a look at replacing its current system that was not used for this situation and going with the county's emergency management list in the future.
"I imagine by the end of the week, we'll look for things that we can do to improve," he said. "We definitely want to look at making sure we fully utilize the tools that the county has available to us in the future."
Overall, Workman believes the city was comprehensive with its outreach.
"I think it was good that the city took the steps that it did," he said. "I think the boil water notice was necessary and the right step but it was all precautionary steps we were taking."
Public Works officials said it's the first citywide boil water alert they've issued. Previous alerts have impacted only specific areas.
"The fact that there wasn't any contamination in the lines after the repair was done tells me that our crew did a great job of taking care of the surface while they were there and they did a good job of flushing the line before bringing it back online," Workman said.