Many Hillsboro residents experienced issues with their water Thursday morning around 7:20 a.m. when water failed to come out of faucets.
“I just thought it was more of the pipework being done on Grand. But I thought it was weird because the city hadn’t warned us like they usually do,” said a west side resident.
The issue was not a scheduled maintenance fix. A high service pump that feeds water into the main water tank failed. The water tank then emptied out.
The city explained more in their press release, “We experienced a telemetry problem at the small water tower this morning (March 7th). This resulted in a drop in water pressure below 20 psi (pounds per square inch) and several areas of town were without water service.”
City of Hillsboro Administrator Larry Paine said employees were already working on the water issue when he realized there was a problem, and they had the water back on within 30 minutes.
“We are thinking it affected most of the town, but we are not completely sure. Our workers moved quickly to get it back on.”
However, possible contamination occurred once air came into the line due to the empty water tank. Failure to maintain adequate pressure may have resulted in bacterial contamination and a loss of chlorine residuals. This caused many residents to have visibly dirty water come out of their faucets.
Paine and his staff immediately notified places that would have human consumption so they could plan accordingly. This included the USD 410 school district who scheduled an early dismissal for all students at 10 a.m. All practices and other school-related activities were canceled for the day.
USD 410 Superintendent Max Heinrichs said, “We decided for our situation of not having enough bottles of water around we needed to cancel school.”
He planned ahead for Friday since it was unclear how long the outage would be and ordered a pallet of water which is about 1,000 bottles of water in each building or 3-4 per student.
“That isn’t really enough water if you think about it so we need to see where we are with it all. I’m not ready to make that call about school tomorrow yet,” said Heinrichs. “My goal is to let everybody know either way as soon as we can. I don’t want to make people sick. It will all come down to the safety of the water.”
Heinrichs ended up calling school off for the next day after guaranteeing that there were still enough remaining days for weather. The school calendar still has four possible days built in before days will have to be added to the school year.
Paine also notified the Kansas Department of Health and Environment who issued a boil water advisory for the city of Hillsboro in their own press release. KDHE gave instructions for the boil water advisory such as flush the water line by letting the water run until it clears, boil tap water for one minute prior to drinking or food preparation or use bottled water and more.
According to KDHE, the advisory would remain in effect until the conditions that placed the system at risk of bacterial contamination were resolved. The order continued until bacteriological samples showed there was no contamination.
On Thursday, Paine said, “We will continue to run bacteria tests and are flushing the water system today.”
Residents were encouraged to purchase water or refill any jugs at Dale’s Supermarket if they did not want to boil their water. Dale’s had another delivery of water come on Friday morning to ensure there was enough water for the town.
“Our water service has a UV (ultraviolet) light that kills any bacteria in the water,” said Dale’s son, Darren Frantz.
When asked how residents without social media are to know about the advisory, Paine asked for people to help spread the word.
“We printed and handed out 1100 flyers to customers throughout Hillsboro,” said Paine. “We answered many customer calls about what happened and what the extent of the problem.”
Late in the afternoon, Paine issued another statement.
“What we know now is the Telemetry system didn’t work properly. About 11:30 last night, the little tower stopped asking the pump to add water to the tower. By 7:30 a.m. water in the tank was gone and without water in the tank, we couldn’t distribute any water to customers.”
He went on to explain that at the same time, the Peabody tower asked for water from their clear well, but Hillsboro didn’t have any capacity to send it their way. Once the city was notified by customers that they had no water, they were able to put the pumps on manual and fill the water tower.
“As the water crew went around checking the system, they were encouraged to see the high levels of chlorine (which in this case would be normal day to day levels). Those samples were taken to the KDHE Laboratory in Salina for testing,” said Paine. “After we have the situation resolved, I will have an after action meeting next week to talk about things that went wrong, what we did right and how to address things for the future.”
Midway Motors provided cases of water to Hillsboro residents both days. They even went out of their way to deliver to a few who could not make it to their dealership.
“We called Max (Heinrichs) to donate water for the schools. School ended up being cancelled so we thought we could provide these to the community instead,” said Jena Terrell.
Just before 5 p.m. on Friday, residents were notified that the results of the tests had come in, and the boil water advisory had been rescinded. The water was not contaminated.
“The analysis of the water samples that were delivered to the PACE laboratory in Saline came back showing no sources of contamination. We had four test samples of water taken from various places around town and all four came back negative,” said Larry Paine, City Administrator. “We spent time restarting the pumps in the water tower and then flushed the system before we took the water samples. Doing that allowed more chlorine in the system to flush. The water quality is now certifiably good.”
Paine expressed gratitude to the community on behalf of the city.
“We appreciate the patience of everybody in town having to deal with this. We know it was an inconvenience,” said Paine.