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East S.L. County mulls its water-flow problems

Homeowners may have to chip in to replace water mains

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MILLCREEK — House afire.

Siren, flashing lights, big red fire truck screeches to a halt on the front lawn, burly firefighters jump out, attach a huge hose to a hydrant and . . . a mere trickle of water comes out.

Enough to water the garden, not the blast required to, as they say, "get the wet stuff onto the red stuff."

This scenario is very real in some areas of east Salt Lake County, particularly in the area from 2700 South to 3900 South and 700 East to 2700 East. Many hydrants there are served by too-small water mains, delivering around 300 gallons per minute when current standards call for five times that much.

"We have people buying and selling homes not knowing that the fire hydrant in their front yard doesn't work," Salt Lake County Councilman Cortland Ashton said.

Being charged with fire protection in the unincorporated county, Salt Lake County officials are understandably concerned about this situation.

So, you may say, just dig up the old 2- or 4-inch water mains and replace them with the needed 8- or 12-inch mains. Easy solution, sure, but getting there isn't so easy.

"It gets real complicated," said county public works director David Stanley.

Replacing water mains and hydrants, and installing needed new ones where there are none, will cost $12.4 million, according to a new study. That's a lot of money, and the county, city and private irrigation companies are trying to work out who will foot the bill.

The county itself does not deliver culinary water — for most parts of the county it's Salt Lake City (much of it outside its own boundaries) and the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District who do that. But several small irrigation companies own and control water systems in the county's eastern environs.

In the case of Millcreek's three primary irrigation companies, Salt Lake City delivers culinary water to the companies, under contract, but does not own the water systems.

When the "fire flow" requirements were increased to 1,000 gallons per minute in 1991, negotiations between Salt Lake City and the Millcreek irrigation companies to improve the system came to nothing. But two years ago the parties got an even ruder wake-up call when the requirement was increased to 1,500 gallons per minute, reflecting greater water use and larger homes.

The current system in the area "is totally inadequate," said Salt Lake public utilities director LeRoy Hooton Jr.

The study, which Salt Lake City commissioned, estimates that the city would pay $3 million for the improvements, the county fire protection district an additional $2.4 million, and private owners $7.1 million, most likely through creation of a special improvement district.

The County Council is in favor of moving ahead, voting as much in its Tuesday meeting. While residents will likely balk at paying as much as an estimated $2,000 per household, letting them know that if they don't their fire protection is inadequate should help, Council Chairman Steve Harmsen said.

One Millcreek resident at least, Pat Corey, is "thrilled with this — I can't tell you how thrilled I am."

Corey has worked for years to improve the Millcreek water infrastructure. She notes that many of the water mains are owned neither by the irrigation companies nor the city but by individual homeowners, many of whom have no idea that they are responsible for maintaining the line leading to their house and often others.

She cites a recent situation in which a water main broke and none of the usual public utilities people fixed it because they don't own it. So it sat there, broken and forlorn, until a nearby homeowner finally realized he was the one responsible.

In conjunction with the fire flow improvements, Hooton wants to bring the entire system under city jurisdiction to avoid those very problems.

The study is complete, the county is on board, but there's still a long way to go. Hooton has yet to pitch a 5 percent water rate increase to the Salt Lake City Council to help fund the improvements, homeowners have to be educated, the irrigation companies have to be convinced. But it's happening.

"This is a lot better, to have everyone working together like this, than doing it through lawsuits and the courts," Hooton said.

E-mail: aedwards@desnews.com