Water-valve letter stirs residents' anger

CENTRAL POINT — After seven years in her home inside New Haven Estates, resident Tammy Dalton was surprised to receive a letter from the city giving her about 30 days to test her backflow valve, a device she'd rarely thought of. If she fails to do so by Oct. 14, the city could issue an order to disconnect the water supply to her home.

Dalton said she will voice concerns to city officials over why, after seven years, "it's somehow an emergency now?"

City officials say they are not pushing to disconnect anyone's water supply but are hoping to bring residents into compliance and educate them about drinking water safety and state requirements.Public Works Director Matt Samitore said the letters went out after recently updated software enabled better management of some 1,500 residential backflow devices in the city.

Backflow valves protect drinking water supplies by preventing water in irrigation lines from flowing back into the main pipes. Gone untested, the valves can malfunction, releasing dirty water from irrigation systems into municipal supplies and causing a host of illnesses and other problems.

While the state requirements for backflow prevention are not new, Samitore said, the city had faced difficulty keeping track of existing devices before obtaining the new software. Samitore said the added focus is because of the city's growth in population. "It's something that has been in place for awhile, but we weren't enforcing our own ordinance," he said.

"If you don't have a working backflow device on your irrigation system, when our pressure drops, which does happen if there's a power outage or the tank drops, there is a chance for water to get sucked back in and that can cause a lot of sickness to occur."

Samitore noted: "It's something that happens every summer across the United States. This isn't some pie-in-the-sky theory. It happens every year and can be very dangerous."

In addition to bringing permitted systems into compliance, the city plans to track down and record systems installed without a city-issued permit to ensure annual testing is done.

Rogue Valley Backflow Services owner Mark Jamieson said while all cities handle backflow checks differently, testing is crucial to keep water supplies safe.

"There's basically a valve interface between drinking water and water that can get cruddy, and you don't want cruddy water getting back into drinking water," said Jamieson.

"Worst-case scenario, you can be out in your yard spraying Roundup, spill a bunch on an emitter head, then they're cracking fire hydrants down the street and there's a negative pressure that sucks bad water into your drinking supply and the neighbor's water supply."

While city officials initially opted to leave testing to residents, to keep water rates down, Samitore said the City Council could decide next year to take over testing of the devices and add the cost to water bills.

Samitore said city officials are trying to work with residents facing financial difficulty, or properties that are vacant or in foreclosure.

Dalton said she planned to have her backflow prevention device tested this week but felt the letter was unnecessarily heavy-handed, threatening a water shutoff that won't likely happen.

She hoped the city would find a way to bring nonpermitted irrigation systems into compliance.

"The people who have them installed with a permit and done correctly are the ones paying when the ones whose aren't installed legally or correctly are probably the ones who will more than likely have a problem and make us all sick," Dalton said.

"It feels like another case of the people who did it right are being made to pay but the ones who didn't don't have to."

Samitore said the issue would be revisited by the council after the November election. Residents unable to pay for backflow device testing, which costs between $25 and $40, are asked to call the city to discuss their situation.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance reporter living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

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