White Rock water levels ‘dangerously low’ after huge fire

A massive fire that broke out in a condominium construction site in White Rock Sunday has led to a torrent of water problems for area residents.

-by Matt Robinson, originally posted on May 15, 2016


Fighting the flames had put such a demand on the small local water system that the city’s reservoirs dropped to “dangerously low” levels, explained councillor David Chesney.

“We haven’t drained our reservoirs, but they’ve gone down a tremendous amount in fighting this fire,” Chesney said. He said the blaze was the biggest he could recall in his 35 years in the city.

The fire, near Johnston Road and Buena Vista Avenue in the Five Corners area of White Rock, was reported a little after 5 a.m. and neighbours were evacuated from the area. Firefighters remain at the scene Sunday evening.

Shortly after the blaze broke out, many White Rock residents noticed their water darken, drop in pressure, or stop running altogether. Eventually the city advised residents to conserve their water and boil what they need to use.

“We’ve not had any indication that there is a major problem yet, but … we just want to err on the safe side that we don’t endanger anyone’s life,” Chesney said.

When area resident Jacqueline Lewis woke around 7 a.m. she immediately noticed the black smoke billowing from the fire. Shortly after, she realized the water to her building had either been turned off, or had lost all of its pressure.

Lewis and her husband Colin live about six blocks north of the blaze in a building with many other seniors who, like themselves, cannot get so much as a glass of water from their taps.

Meanwhile, Christine Kannegiesser, about four blocks from the fire, spotted her toilet filling with dark-coloured water shortly before pressure dropped. Her taps were still pouring clean water, she said, but with little pressure.

When one area resident saw what they thought was soot coming out of their household taps they tried to notify the city about the problem but soon found that its number for water emergencies was only monitored during business hours.

It wasn’t until 1 p.m. — hours after water had blackened for some — that the City of White Rock posted notice of a boil water advisory on its website.

“We are asking that you conserve water during this event,” read the advisory, which was projected to be in effect for the next day or two. It gave no explanation for the water quality concerns at the time, but by 3:30 p.m. the city added: “We do not believe that the discoloured water is a health concern, however as a precaution a boil water advisory is still in effect.”

Chesney said that because the city’s water storage areas had not been drained as low as they had, “probably ever, or certainly not in anyone’s memory,” it was a matter of erring on the side of safety. Chesney, who lives a few blocks from the fire, noted his own water pressure had been halved.

Unlike most parts of the region, White Rock is not connected to Metro Vancouver’s water system. Instead, its 20,000 residents get their water from six ground wells driven in the Sunnyside Uplands Aquifer, according to the municipality.

City councillors directed staff in January 2013 to look at what it would take to join Metro Vancouver’s system. A report from Metro put the infrastructure cost around $25 million, including $13 million in upstream improvements “to pay for the incremental impact of their additional demand.” Among other things, White Rock would need to purchase land at South Surrey Athletic Park to build a pump station and construct distribution lines, according to the city, and the work was estimated by Metro to take at least three years to complete. White Rock would also need to pay Metro about $1.5 million a year for the water.

Rather than go that route, in 2015 the city agreed to purchase its privately run local water utility. The two parties have since gone to binding arbitration over the purchase price.

When asked if he thought the water problems caused by the fire would change the discussion around White Rock joining Metro’s water supply, Chesney said he did not think it would have any effect at all.

“I don’t think this is going to impact that in any way, shape or form, to be very truthful,” Chesney said.

Downtown Vancouver has some fire hydrants that can be fed with sea water, but Chesney said he believed White Rock did not. He said officials will take a close look at whether anything more could be done to prepare for a future fire of this size, but noted mid-afternoon Sunday that despite the loss in pressure, fire trucks were still pumping plenty of water on the blaze and the reservoirs would fill back up quickly after the firefighting was finished.

“This disaster — that’s about the only way to describe it — once we’ve ensured that the community is safe and drinking water is back to normal, I think we’ll sit down and look at this,” Chesney said.

Water has been a major issue for the municipality in past months, with residents protesting a city plan to treat its well water with chloramine.


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