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City to accommodate certified public water operators as it ends fire hydrant leasing program

Well on Wheels owner relieved business can continue
Sean O’Brien, owner of Well on Wheels, fills his water truck Friday at a La Plata County Water District bulk water fill station east of Durango. He said he is pleased the city is implementing a new program for certified public water operators after ending a hydrant meter lease program, which allowed contractors and operators to lease fire hydrants for fast and efficient water tank fill-ups. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The city of Durango is launching a program to allow water operators to fill their tanks using designated fire hydrants after a similar but laxer program ended on Friday because hydrants kept getting damaged.

The city will create a new hydrant lease program reserved exclusively for certified public water operators so they can fill up their tanks quickly and efficiently to meet demands from residents and businesses, said Justin Elkins, utilities manager in the city’s public works department.

The hydrant meter lease program that officially ended on Friday allowed contractors and water haulers to get water from city hydrants for $300 every six months, with water taken recorded at the meter and billed directly to them. But contractors were damaging hydrants and not reporting the damage to the city, creating the risk hydrants might not operate for firefighters in an emergency, he said.

Under the old program, up to 22 hydrant meters could be leased at any one time, he said. On average, 11 hydrants would be consistently leased.

The city installed a second water dock bulk filling station at 550 South Camino del Rio for residents, contractors and commercial users who would no longer have access to hydrants, and the city directed water haulers to submit an application to use the station. There are currently 550 active accounts for the city’s water docks, Elkins said.

But O’Brien said the flow rates at the filling stations are “significantly” slower than the fill rate at hydrants, which is between 400 and 800 gallons per minute. His drivers – who service hundreds of people weekly – would spend more time waiting in line and filling their tanks than delivering water to customers.

“It’s kind of like telling waste management they’ve gotta wait in line with, you know, people’s old pickup trucks at the transfer station or something,” he said.

Well on Wheels is essentially providing a public service, he said. Its drivers fill up, transport and deliver tens of thousands of gallons of potable water to residents and businesses every day, oftentimes under pressure to get water to people who unexpectedly need it.

James Hobby with Durango public works repairs a fire hydrant valve seat damaged by a “water hammer,” which occurs when a hydrant’s operating valve is closed too quickly. The result is a hydraulic shock wave through the water distribution system, said Justin Elkins, utilities manager in the city’s public works division. (Courtesy of city of Durango)

Peoples’ wells stop working overnight and suddenly, they don’t have drinking water or water to bathe in, he said. A fast turnaround by drivers ensures people have water for their basic needs.

Without a fast and accessible water source, Well on Wheels could have been out of business within a few weeks, he said in an email to The Durango Herald.

The end of the hydrant meter lease program, scheduled for Friday, threatened to upend public water haulers with hundreds of customers until O’Brien met with Elkins on Wednesday and found a solution.

The city decided to create a new hydrant lease program just for certified public water operators, he said.

Tom Sluis, city spokesman, said the hydrant meter lease program isn’t a service the city is obligated to provide, but it does so as a courtesy.

“We do it as a convenience because we do want to get along with our neighbors,” he said.

O’Brien was pleasantly surprised the city was willing to work with him to find a solution. He said he sent emails pitching solutions to city staff members, but all of his ideas were turned down. On Sunday, he sent an email to his customers urging them to contact the city. Many of his customers were desperate to work out a solution.

“We have different businesses and trailer parks that we service that go through lots of water (2,000 gallons) in a day and they can easily run out of water if there’s a leak or something,” he said. “And we need to be able to fill up and get right out there. Because when that happens, there’s 30 people out of water all at once.”

Elkins called O’Brien on Monday to set up a meeting. He and public works staff members were understanding of O’Brien’s situation, and the situation of his customers, O’Brien said.

“Now that we have a solution, I am pleased as punch,” he said.

O’Brien said he hadn’t met Elkins before their meeting on Wednesday, and Elkins was “great.” He also gave credit to Justin Talbot, owner of Mountain Man Water, his main competitor, for working closely with him in finding a solution with the city.

Elkins said the second water dock bulk filling station was installed to reduce or eliminate user wait times because for years, residents had to rely on a single dock to fill their tanks. On Nov. 10, the city’s utilities division hosted a training on water dock operation along with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Rural Community Assistance Corp. for all companies with a city business license and a hydrant meter lease.

He said the utilities division sent a letter to hydrant meter lease holders about plans to end the program on Jan. 9.


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