There’s a fire hydrant right across the street from the five row houses that burned July 28 on Woodlawn Avenue, but fire companies instead tapped hydrants farther away.
The aging 4-inch water main to the closest hydrant yielded too little water to fight the inferno, so firefighters ran hoses to hydrants fed by larger mains on Broadway, Church Street and farther down on Woodlawn.
The 4-inch mains, which the city is slowly replacing, are small by today’s standards and have gotten clogged with minerals over the decades, said Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco.
“It winds up to be like a 1- to 11⁄2-inch opening,” Scirocco said. Water mains that are installed today are typically at least 8 or 12 inches.
But keeping the city’s water system running is more complicated than simply replacing small pipes.
“Every time you replace a pipe or put a new pipe in here and there, it changes the hydraulics in the city,” Scirocco said.
City officials need to look at the big picture before they make changes, but that proves difficult when the maps of the water supply are outdated and incomplete.
So the City Council voted last week to contract with Chazen Companies of Troy to complete a model of the city’s water system by flushing hydrants and conducting flow tests. The $45,500 project will give the city a master plan that will help officials see what will happen to the water pressure if there is a change. For example, the document would indicate what would happen if a new development is built, or if workers replace a small main with a larger one, or if usage increases in a certain part of the city.
The city commissioned Chazen to start testing in June 2012 for immediate needs near Saratoga Race Course, and this latest approval continues that work. The company expects to have a plan ready next year, and also will recommend long-term system upgrades so the city can budget for them.
Having the money to do the recommended work will be challenging, Scirocco said, estimating the entire system upgrades will cost somewhere around $600,000 or $700,000.
In a wet year like this one, water usage decreases. And while that’s great for the customers paying the bills, it gives the city less money to spend on water system repairs and improvements.
Water system upgrades must be funded by water users rather than by all city taxpayers.
To help pay for some of the bigger projects, the city in June started collecting a capital improvement fee from water customers. Most residential customers pay $8 a quarter for that fee; it ranges up to $100 depending on the size of the building’s water meter.
So far the city has raised between $200,000 and $250,000, Scirocco said.
“It’s definitely a help, because if you have a summer like we did this year … then you’ve got to make it up some other way. We can’t just keep basing it on metered sales.”
Other water system improvements are already under way this year.
The city is drilling wells in the Bog Meadow Brook area to boost the water supply. Saratoga Springs often exceeds its rated water capacity in July and August, and the state Health Department had told the city to come up with a new backup source.
The city also is completing a $1.6 million project to upgrade the water treatment plant on Excelsior Avenue, rebuilding four huge filters that were last rebuilt in 1968.
The filters use sand, small gravel and anthracite coal to filter water drawn from the Loughberry Lake reservoir, which is the city’s primary water source.