County in Utah Creates District to Improve Water System

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Salt Lake County officials have been spurred by the Wasatch Junior High School fire to create a special improvement district to improve the water service for firefighting.

Fire officials had said the old water system provided too little water at too little pressure. Salt Lake City officials, who serve the school's area in Holladay, defended the water supply.

However, county officials said Tuesday that the blaze likely would not have escalated to a six-alarm blaze if water pipelines were up to code.

They created a special improvement district in Millcreek to update water pipes and replace the dead-end grid with a loop system.

The $13.8 million special improvement district will put a 20-mile looping series of 8- and 12-inch water mains and add about 350 new hydrants to the area.

The creation of the district resolves a nearly 40-year battle between the city and the county over which government is responsible for updating the outdated fire flows. Although the city provides the water, the county is the building authority and is responsible for the infrastructure, county public works engineer Neil Stack said.

Although the school is four blocks east of the new district's boundary, the improvements still could have significantly reduced the time to put out the fire, said County Councilman Michael Jensen.

Unified Fire Authority Capt. Gaylord Scott said water pressure in the area dropped to 700 gallons per minute at times Monday, far below the standard 1,500 to 2,000 gallons per minute.

''I'm not trying to blame the city. All I'm trying to say is that we didn't have enough water,'' he said. ''It's just that simple.''

Six-inch pipes in the area are smaller than the standard 8- to 12-inch pipes required by standards set in 2000.

''Any upgrade to the water system is an upgrade for everyone,'' Scott said. ''We're safer. You're safer.''

Because of that low pressure, Jensen said, firefighters were using a relay system to pump in water from up to 2,000 feet away. But as they did that, the water pressure from the existing lines dropped even further because of the dead-end system, he said.

United Fire Authority Chief Don Berry said he knew his team was going to have problems as soon as they heard the fire was on the valley's east side where older neighborhoods mean older water mains and outdated systems.

''We've dealt with the problem for many years,'' Berry said. ''In any area where you have small pipes and a lack of hydrants, you could have the same thing we faced yesterday.''

Jeff Niermeyer, deputy director of public utilities for Salt Lake City, said that while he understands firefighters' desire for more water, the system in the area was adequate.

''What could have been better is an increased density in fire hydrants,'' he said. ''When they have to start chasing fire hydrants, there's a huge pressure drop from the hydrant to the nozzle.''

Information from: Deseret Morning News