Some pressure water district to restore their flow

Dave Willingham shows what his water pressure is like when more than one faucet is on at his home. - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Dave Willingham shows what his water pressure is like when more than one faucet is on at his home.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo


About a month ago, Dave Willingham turned on his water and noticed something different. The water pressure, which was previously fine at his home on Quartermaster Drive, was “absolutely terrible,” he said.

Suddenly, Willingham said, he and his wife couldn’t use water in more than one part of their home without seeing it reduced to a little more than a trickle.

“You can’t flush the toilet when someone is in the shower,” he said. “This is not survivable.”

Willingham, who co-owns the Vashon Pharmacy, was thinking of calling a plumber when he learned his neighbor down the hill was experiencing the same thing. The two soon discovered that they were among a small but unknown number of Water District 19 customers who lost water pressure as an unexpected result of a recent district project.

A few District 19 customers are now upset and looking for answers, including Willingham’s neighbor, Tom Trigg. Trigg, who has been most vocal about the issue, is trying to find others affected and says he may pursue legal action if his water pressure isn’t restored.

“All Dave and I want is what we had before,” Trigg said. “We don’t need more.”

Water District 19 officials, on the other hand, say they’re just as surprised as their customers to learn of the problem and they’re now trying to address it.

Jeff Lakin, the district’s general manager, said engineers are working to adjust a system of new pressure-reducing valves that was recently activated. They hope most people will see their water pressure improve, he said. However it’s also likely that some will have to learn to live with lower pressure than they had before or replace their own water pipes to get better pressure, as the district believes all are being provided more than the minimum amount of water pressure required already.

“We’re basically telling them be patient. We’re still working,” Lakin said.

He said the water district, which has received a handful of complaints so far, is also asking customers who are affected to call the district office so they can better understand the scope of the problem.

“We’re really frustrated about it ourselves,” said Richard Bard, chair of the District 19 board. “I don’t think we knew how much tuning was going to be required after installation, and that’s what is ongoing.”

The water pressure issue stems from a District 19 project that has been in the works for some time. For decades, customers on the outskirts of the district’s service area and in low-elevation spots, particularly on the beach, have complained of very high water pressure. Some homes had between 80 and 120 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure, which is above the recommended amount for homes and can cause leaks as well as exacerbate existing leaks. Customers complained of ongoing leaks at their homes, said Bob Powell, another District 19 board member, while others paid to install their own pressure reducers to fix the problem. The district also saw the high pressure cause leaks in its own pipes.

“It was a regular thing for someone to have a leak in their service line outside their house or a leak in their house and have damage,” Powell said.

In 2013, the water district began a $240,000 project to install five pressure-reducing valve stations throughout its system. While the valves have been in the ground for some time, they were only activated in the last couple of months, prompting calls from customers who noticed a sudden change in their water pressure.

One call came from Joe English, who lives just north of Burton. He recently installed pressure-reducing faucets on his garden hoses, only to see a trickle of water come out when his wife tried to water their plants. Inside the house, his shower has less water, the toilet takes longer to fill, and there’s not much pressure in the kitchen sink.

“I’m a little upset,” English said. “I’d like to see another 20 pounds come back. … Admittedly it’s just a nuisance, other than the expense of changing out those hose bibs.”

Islander Kathy Wheaton, however, says the issue is more than a nuisance for her. After going back and forth with the district for some time about what she calls increasingly poor water pressure at her nursery near town, Kathy’s Corner, Wheaton said she was dismayed to lose water pressure at her home as well. It now takes 20 minutes to fill her washing machine, she said, and showering is “like pouring a bottle of water over your head.”

In addition, Wheaton said she and her husband couldn’t plant the large garden they normally do each spring, a garden that provided produce for the couple as well as their nursery employees.

Wheaton says she’s complained to District 19, and she’s heard from nursery customers who also saw their water pressure drop.

“They just don’t know the source of the issues,” she said.

Officials with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) learned of the problem and contacted District 19 after a recent training exercise. When VIFR crews pulled water from a fire hydrant at Dockton Park, at least one nearby home completely lost water pressure, said Chief Hank Lipe.

Low water pressure is a concern, Lipe said, because VIFR uses District 19 fire hydrants to fight fires as well as to fill water tenders to take to fires. He said he is also worried that some home sprinkler systems may not function with low water pressure.

Lipe contacted District 19 and was assured the problem is being addressed, he said, but he followed up with a formal letter on Friday as well.

“This unfortunate development is very concerning to me. ... I have the utmost confidence that restoring water pressure to acceptable levels throughout the District 19 distribution system is of your highest priority,” Lipe wrote in his letter to Lakin.

Tom Trigg is also concerned, but said he isn’t feeling as confident that District 19 will address the situation.

Water pressure at his house on Quartermaster Drive is now much worse than before, said Trigg, who owns Trigg Insurance. He’s especially concerned that his sprinkler system may not work and that insurance rates could be affected. District 19 has explained the situation to him, but he said he’s unhappy they aren’t able to tell him if his pressure will improve and how much.

Trigg placed an ad in this week’s newspaper asking others who are affected to contact him as well as District 19 officials.

“I want to get feedback from District 19 customers,” he said. “If this is system-wide, I think we need to do something, hire an attorney and see if there’s legal recourse to force the district to provide the pressure instead of expand the system to more customers.”

Lakin said that shortly after the pressure-reducing valves were activated, District 19 realized that some homes around Quartermaster Harbor, Ellisport and Morgan Hill had seen large decreases in pressure. There was also inadequate water flow to fire hydrants in the Ellisport area. That problem was soon fixed, and Lakin said all fire hydrants in the district’s service area have adequate water supply.

Powell, the District 19 board member, said that of greatest concern now is that in some areas when fire hydrants are in use, surrounding homes will see water pressure drop to below 20 psi. While most hydrants are rarely used, the district is required by law to provide customers with at least 30 psi at all times. Engineers hired to design the system are now taking a second look, and adjustments will be made to assure that homes have at least 30 psi even when hydrants are in use.

Those adjustments are expected to even out pressure throughout the system, Powell said, however it’s possible some may still have less pressure than before. Everyone will be provided with at least 30 psi, which is at the low end of water pressure for homes. Willingham, for instance, recently had his pressure tested and had 35 psi, he said.

Powell added that people who are still unhappy with their water pressure after the system is adjusted may consider replacing their own water pipes that connect with District 19’s system. Older, corroded pipes may have been fine in a high-pressure situation, but now could exacerbate low water pressure. He also said he expects the water district’s board, which just learned about the problem about a week ago, will keep track of what District 19 hears from its customers.

“If the district gets a lot of complaining about pressure, then we’ll certainly be discussing it on an ongoing basis,” he said.


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