You’ve probably read about the Corpus Christie water problem related directly to a failed backflow prevention device. If you haven’t, the gist is that petroleum-based chemicals entered into the water supply in Corpus Christie, Texas from a building outside Austin. How? By a failed backflow prevention device.
So what really happened in Corpus Christie?
The larger problem is not that the backflow device failed. They do sometimes. That’s why backflow devices are tested annually, or, in more hazardous cases such as this, every 3 to 6 months. The bigger problem is that the city isn’t enforcing the codes to have the backflow devices tested. Programs that enforce backflow prevention codes are expensive and time consuming – and sometimes cities simply don’t have the funds to put towards the program. Well, that is, until something like this happens that completely threatens the availability of safe drinking water. (Not to mention water that is safe to shower in, water plants, the list goes on and on.)
The reality is that when a backflow program works, there’s not evidence it’s working. It’s like anything that is preventative – if you change your oil in your car every few thousand miles, you’re not going to notice it running more smoothly. If you don’t change your oil for 3 years and “suddenly” your car isn’t functioning, you’ll remember you haven’t done any preventative maintenance. If nothing is going wrong in the water supply, there’s no evidence that the codes being enforced regarding cross connection devices have had anything to do with the clean water. When those codes are no longer regularly enforced though, it’s “suddenly” evident that backflow devices DO matter. And testing them? Well, it’s essential.
“City Spokeswoman Kimberly Womack says they leave it to local plumbers to find out which properties may not have a compliant backflow device and then, offer their services.” “The Weak Link in Our Water Supply”
This doesn’t seem like the most fruitful way to run a cross-connection program. One difficulty is that the Environmental Protection Agency has suggestions for how to run a cross connection program, but not distinct requirements. This means that a water district can abide, more or less, by it’s own rules as long as there is an established cross connection program. The EPA’s recommendations are generalized. However, they do include characteristics such as “Proper staffing and education of personnel is a requirement to insure that an effective program is acheived.” Environmental Protection Agency Cross-Connection Control Manual
Contrary to what the spokesperson for the city stated, The City of Corpus Christie website does state that “As a part of the device tracking process, we print notices daily to be mailed a month in advance to the home owners and business owners whose backflow prevention devices are due for testing.” City of Corpus Christie Backflow Prevention If home and business owners are being notified directly from the water district, there may be a lack of enforcement after the notification.
While the water district would benefit from notifying people and companies that they were or were not in backflow compliance (instead of a private company,) notifications are not regulated or required by the EPA. This is where things can get shaky. While sending notifications to companies and individuals might help with codes being enforced, it’s costly and time-consuming. When backflow devices fail from not being tested regularly though, it’s much more costly.
Enforcing clean, safe water codes is expensive. We’re trying to bring those costs down dramatically so that situations like these simply don’t arise.