Long road ahead

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Paradise Irrigation District Manager Kevin Phillips addresses a crowd of hundreds at the Paradise Alliance Church.

Kevin Phillips looked out at a crowd of some 700 people, most of them his customers, and delivered a painful message that many had heard before from varying sources. But to get confirmation from the Paradise Irrigation District manager that it may take two to three years to get the town’s water infrastructure back up and running at full capacity still sent shock waves through the large auditorium.

“There is no game book, no game plan. We’re having to [create] the plan right now,” Phillips explained during a short introduction outlining the process PID is going through to assess contamination in the pipelines. “We’re going to have more of these meetings to keep you guys up-to-date so you can understand the process, the hurdles we’re jumping through.”

That, it seemed, was welcome news. And despite some in the audience who were quick to sling insults and ask accusatory questions, the mood in the room was more exasperation at a terrible situation and less anger toward the irrigation district.

A case in point: Toward the end of the three-hour meeting at Paradise Alliance Church Tuesday night (March 26), one particularly irate man told Phillips and the others onstage—including Purdue engineer Andrew Whelton, an expert on water contamination who has been consulting with the district—that he’d just spent $200,000 on rebuilding two rentals in Paradise. “If I can’t deliver water to renters, I’m losing money,” he said. “If I was your boss, you’d be walking down a road.”

The crowd appeared to stand behind Phillips—a round of “boos” followed this passionate outburst.

“I understand your frustration,” Phillips said calmly. “We’re fighting for those new constructions, and to get temporary water to those new constructions.”

That is the best answer he could give for the dozens of people who pleaded for clean water for their existing homes—and those they hope to rebuild in the months and years to come. As it now stands, PID is recommending not using its water for drinking, cooking, even bathing (beyond a short, cold or lukewarm, shower).

While the main culprit appears to be benzene, a known carcinogen believed to have leached into the pipelines when the Camp Fire melted plastic pipes and meters, other “volatile organic compounds” also have been found. With 173 miles of pipes, testing them all, then eliminating the contamination and restoring service, is a daunting task. It will start at the top and move down, as PID works on a gravity-based system. And it will require shutting the system down before getting it back up.

One way the district is hoping to mitigate the impacts is to provide water tanks—and water to fill them—to individual structures. Phillips said he is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California Office of Emergency Services to secure funding for that, and he’s expecting an answer in early April. Home and business owners, however, are still responsible for ensuring that their internal plumbing is safe, as the contamination has been found through testing at taps.

Many of the public speakers expressed frustration at the lack of direction they’ve been given, and the mixed messaging they receive depending on whom they talk to. A prime example Tuesday evening was Kristin Cooper, who was representing North State Water Treatment.

“When I spoke to our regional water quality office, it was their understanding that there had not been a single positive test [inside a home],” she said. “We have been urging people not to pay for [expensive] tests.”

Whelton said he’d gotten similar mixed information from varying agencies, which he hopes will be remedied. But he affirmed that, “I have been contacted by people who have found contamination in their homes. The state is saying they don’t have that information.”

Going forward, Phillips said, the PID is expecting to implement the next phase of testing within 30 days. He also urged those in attendance to sign up for water system updates on the district’s website (pidwater.com), where they can also find information on test results, upcoming meetings and how to register for a PID-provided water tank.

“We are dedicated to the town of Paradise and to its citizens so this town can rebuild quickly,” Phillips said.