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Water, Water Everywhere

Imagine you’re in Hawaii for the winter months enjoying the sunshine and tropical breezes, hardly a care in the world. Sure, back in California things are dry, in fact, this year is turning out to be the driest on record, but your Northern California rural property is shut down for the winter; the house is locked up, the inverter that runs the electrical system is turned off, and perhaps most important, especially during a drought, the water is shut off at the road where it passes through the Brooktrails Township Community Services District meter to your valve, the one you shut off before leaving.

You’ve had pvc pipes break before due to freezing over the years and know that when temps drop into the 20s, uninsulated, water-filled plastic pipes can break, which is why you wrapped your pvc pipes when you installed them, and always shut off the valve by the meter before leaving on any extended period away from home.

Then you wake up one day in January, make some coffee, and have a bite to eat while reading the local newspaper. The same routine you’ve been doing since you returned to Hawaii back in November, having left just before the first frost of the season. Since it’s another beautiful day on the Big Island you decide to take a bike ride, and stop by the local post office to get your mail. You get your Willits Weekly, where every front page article is about the local water shortage, and mandatory water rationing. Yet another good reason to be in Hawaii right now, you think to yourself.

Actually the Big Island of Hawaii has been in a drought since ’08, but water still falls on parts of the Island and it still snows occasionally up on Mauna Kea. Just a few weeks ago the Hamakua Coast, about 10 miles east of your Hawaii home, got hit with a drenching rain that dropped three inches in just one hour! Mendocino County, California hasn’t had much more than three inches in the past year! But again, you’ve done your part conserving Brooktrails water by wintering in Hawaii.

Oh, and you get your monthly water bill. The Brooktrails water monthly base rate is $49.37, meaning that whether you use water or not it’s $49.37 a month. Of course if you use more than the allotted amount it costs more, but you made the decision when you decided to build your new house back in the Spring of 2001 that you would build to code so that you could get your building permit, which Brooktrails requires in order to hook up to their ever more precious water supply. You actually have your own spring at the bottom of your hill, and you’ve been pumping water up the hill to your holding tanks above both houses since 1986, when hooking up to Brooktrails water was free. Then sometime after that they started charging to hook up, and that price continued to climb and was at $2700 when you finally got your building permit in 2002.

The day you got your permit you were running late. It was already pushing 5 o’clock when you got back to Willits, and although you were planning on going straight to Brooktrails to show them your permit and pay for the hook up, you decided it could wait till Monday because it was beer o’clock, so you stopped at your favorite pub. While sitting at the bar chatting with other patrons, a man entered and announced quite loudly to no one in particular that the Brooktrails board is having a special meeting tomorrow — Saturday — to raise the hook-up fee from $2,700 to $6,200. Wow, someone said, that’s more than twice as much!

You had read about a price increase in the Willits News, but thought it was still sometime in the future. Monday came and you made sure you showed up at the Brooktrails office first thing in the morning, but when you did you were told the hook-up fee was now $6,200. You couldn’t believe it at first, sort of like the feeling you had when you saw your recent water bill… Speaking of your recent water bill, before sticking it in your saddle bag you glanced at it just to make sure it was still $49 and 37¢, but as you read the numbers they made no sense — something was wrong! The bill said you owed $1,361.11, and that you used 160,393 gallons of water in December, your first full month in Hawaii.

This idea to get Brooktrails water so you wouldn’t be inconvenienced by having to go all the way down your hill to pump water once a week was getting expensive, you said to yourself. The hook-up cost you $6,200 and now a broken pipe may cost you $1,361. That’s a total of $7,561 just for the privilege of getting Brooktrails water!

Needless to say, you go straight home and call the Brooktrails District office. You talk to a secretary who tells you she will get someone to call you back. No one does, so the next day you call again. You tell her again about the bill and that you’d like to talk to her boss, but she tells you that the break was on “Your side of the meter, and you’re responsible,” with an “and that’s that!” tone in her voice.

You call your neighbor Bob, who is keeping his eye on your place while you’re away, and he stops by and takes photos, which explain the problem. Their meter goes to the next box which holds the backflow-prevention valve (something they installed back in the 90s), before it goes into your shut-off valve. The pipe holding their backflow-prevention valve broke, but Bob doesn’t see how that much water could have gone into the ground.

That much water into the ground was a scary thought since your house was downhill from the road. And Brooktrails water comes down the middle of the road through a 4-inch diameter pvc pipe that’s about five feet under the roadbed. The reason you know this? That pipe has broken before, more than once, the last time was March 2011.

It was about 5:30 in the afternoon that day in March, and you stepped out your back door to grab another beer when you heard this gushing sound coming from up on the road. “Oh shit,” you said to yourself, the pipe broke again. You went up to the road and saw water bubbling up the middle and running down both sides of the road. Gallons and gallons. You estimated at least 100 gallons per minute, and most of it was pouring over the road onto your property. This is why you dug a ditch between the road and your house site back when you decided to build a new house because the old house further down the hill was moving — further down the hill. And now the ditch was filling up.

Entering Brooktrails
Entering Brooktrails

You called the Brooktrails office and were told the workers had gone home, but Scott, one of the road crew guys, was contacted and soon showed up to see the break. By the time Scott was notified, came to look at the break, and drove up the hill to turn it off at the tank, more than an hour had gone by. That’s six thousand gallons, according to your conservative estimate of 100 gallons a minute. Still, 100,000 gallons less than the latest break.

Turns out the 20,000 gallon tank at the top of the hill that feeds you and your neighbors has an automatic turn ON valve, meaning that when water in the tank drops to a certain level (about 20%) it automatically pumps more water in, so of course more water comes out… And since there is no automatic shut OFF valve, it continues until when? Either the pump dies or both the reservoirs are emptied?

So you asked Scott, “What if I hadn’t seen the break and it went all night? You mean it would just keep pumping more water in as more would come out?” Scott looked at you as if he hadn’t thought about that before. You guess it’s not something one thinks about until there’s a drought… followed by a cold spell…followed by a profusion of broken pipes.

In fact, a drought has a way of changing everything. The latest mandatory rationing in Brooktrails is 110 gallons a day per household. In Willits it’s 150 per day. And the forecast shows no significant rain in sight through April. Funny coincidence, that’s when the rainy season ends! As JUNEuary comes to a close, you hope FebRAINary is around the corner.

Back again to present day Hawaii. The weekend came and you told your wife you would call again first thing Monday morning and ask to talk to Robert, the road crew leader, and ask him to check out the break. After the March 2011 break , a four-man crew showed up with what you called a Giant Vacuum Truck that sucked up the dirt and rocks, exposing the broken pipe. Two guys dropped into the hole and repaired the pipe, which already had a flex connector. One of the workers you talked to explained that the flex connector was installed after it already broke a few times before because “this hill is moving,” he said, while pointing down the hill toward your house, and added, “Hell, there’s a river under here and this whole side of the mountain is moving.”

You found out before building your new house that the old one was built on a slip plane, meaning that under 10 or so feet of dirt and rocks there’s clay, and when the ground gets saturated enough, the water can’t penetrate the clay so everything moves — it slips. After your old house slipped the first time you tried to save it with more concrete, but after the next wet winter it slipped again. You got a backhoe to find out how deep the clay was, but the back-hoe couldn’t reach down that far, so you gave up after two attempts to save it. You decided to move up to the flat spot nearer to the road, which was the log deck back in the 70s when they clear-cut this redwood forest and sold it to Brooktrails, who named it the Spring Creek subdivision, and cut it up into 20-acre parcels.

Where were we? Monday came and you called the office again and finally got Robert, who also told you it was on your side of the road. You told him that your friend was there and saw where it broke and took photos. He relented and said he’d check it out. That afternoon he called back and apologized and said you were right and he’d take care of it.

It was over, just like that. You hung up the phone, wrote a check to the Brooktrails Township for $49.37, and mailed it. You never want to be late because there’s a late fee and they can shut off your water on their side of the meter. And yes, they charge an additional fee for turning it back on.

The End. I Hope.

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