Underground sprinkler systems require backflow tests

If the backflow prevention valve isn't working there could be contamination of potable water.

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WALLA WALLA - Thousands of property owners with underground sprinklers are having to pay upwards of $100 each year to have their irrigation systems tested, as public works officials try to meet State Department of Health Requirements.

But thousand of property owners are getting out of the testing process because their systems are too old to be in the city's database or never received city permits, public works officials said.

At issue is the low risk of cross contamination of potable water from fertilizers and fecal matter on lawns that could occur if a backflow prevention valve failed on an underground irrigation system.

Currently, there are 5,844 backflow prevention assemblies in the city's database, with the vast majority being part of residential irrigation systems.

"It's one (health requirement) that has been out for a long period of time. It has been a slow gentle push (to implement)," said interim Public Works Director Tom Purcell.

When compared to other cities, Walla Walla has been "a little bit slower" to implement the state standards, Purcell added.

"Of course you start with those facilities that are the greatest risk, hospitals, industry, factories, then you work back from there," Purcell said.

In 2007, public works officials upped the pressure on residential property owners with the hiring of a full-time cross connection control specialist, who also makes sure people like Art Miller of Glen Erin Street get their yearly reminder.

For Miller, testing of his irrigation system started in 2004, with a letter from the city informing him he needed to get his backflow prevention valve tested from a certified state-licensed plumber.

"I went down to the city and I said, ‘What is this crap?' And they explained it to me. And I said well nobody else in my neighborhood is doing this, but I didn't want to rat the neighbors out," Miller said.

City Cross Connection Control Specialist Richard Guse said it's the biggest complaint he hears from people, that a property owner will have to pay for yearly tests while the neighbor next door doesn't.

The reason, Guse explained, is there are probably as many as 3,000 underground irrigation systems in the city that are not in his database because they were installed prior to required permits or installed afterward without permits.

"This is such an old town that we have a lot of systems that were put in before backflow was required," Guse said.

Of the 5,844 letters the city sent out earlier to remind property owners about the yearly testing requirements, only about 50 property owners have so far failed to have test results registered with the city.

That's a noncompliance rate of less than one percent. And if the city got tough, it could disconnect those property owners from city water, Purcell noted. But that has yet to take place.

"We are going pretty softly trying to convince people of the fact that we are doing this and they need to be doing this out of concern for the health and safety of their neighbors and their families," Purcell said.

The cost for testing ranges anywhere from $40 to $100 and can only be performed by licensed plumbers certified to test backflow prevention valves.

Walla Walla plumber Chris Johnson said his company does about 10 tests per week during irrigation season. He noted that many of his customers complain about the cost.

"They do complain a lot because their irrigation installers will put this valve on and then not say anything. But then we are not the ones who made the rules. We are just the ones turning in the test results to the city," Johnson said.

Not all backflow valves require yearly testing. Atmospheric valves that are installed properly above ground level need only be permitted and inspected once, public works officials said.

But irrigation installers don't always offer that option to their clients, and in many cases they forget to inform them that regular testing will be required with their newly installed and permitted systems, as was Miller's case.

"Myself and my neighbors are the only ones on this block to get them (testing notification letters). And the only reason is when we put the new yard in, we hired a guy and he got a permit," Miller said.

Public works officials said in the past city employees have canvassed city streets looking for underground irrigation systems that are not in the database, and the city may conduct another search in the future.

"The bottom line is if you have an underground sprinkler system, you have to have the (backflow prevention) device," Guse said.

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