Straight From the Source

Washington utility takes an unfiltered approach to delivering the best water.

Straight From the Source

City of Bremerton Water Resources Manager Kathleen Cahall tests water at the Advanced Water Treatment Facility.

People stay in certain places for all kinds of reasons. For Kathleen Cahall, it’s all about the water.

But it’s not the beauty of Puget Sound that has kept Cahall in Bremerton, Washington, for nearly three decades, but rather the pure, unadulterated supply of freshwater that flows into the community.

Cahall became city water resources manager in 1991 and just retired at the end of June.

“I do like to stay in places for a while, and I was hoping it would be the kind of work that I could do for a long time,” she says. “But, really, Bremerton has remarkable water, which really is why I stayed. Lots of people worked very hard over the years to protect this water.”

What makes Bremerton’s water special is that it is delivered to customers unfiltered. Only a handful of U.S. water suppliers have regulatory permission to distribute water to customers without first running it through a filtration plant. Bremerton qualifies principally because the city has arduously protected the watershed around its primary water source.

Source protection

Three-quarters of the city’s potable water flows into the system from a 1.4 billion-gallon reservoir behind Casad Dam, which was erected in 1957 across the Union River. The imposing concrete arched structure is 600 feet higher in elevation than Bremerton, which sits near sea level, so the 6.5 million gallons released daily is gravity fed to the city. The water’s only treatment is in facilities that disinfect it using chlorine and ultraviolet light. Cahall has described the city’s tap water supply as “basically just drinking the rainwater.”

To accomplish this state of “filtration avoidance,” city police officers rigorously patrol the 3,000-acre watershed immediately surrounding the reservoir. The city owns that immediate watershed acreage and some 5,000 contiguous acres, an acquisition effort dating to the 1920s. Surveillance cameras keep watch in the area nearest the reservoir for trespassers, such as bikers, hikers, and hunters. Prosecution is a very real possibility for anyone who enters the area.

“We want the best water quality we can achieve by protecting the watershed,” Cahall says. In recent years, water quality has dropped in some other Washington communities, falling to a level requiring filtration. “We have that in our thoughts. Right now we can meet the regulations for quality. Sometime in the future there likely will be a treatment plant, but we want to avoid that for as long as we can.”

In 2017, the American Water Works Association recognized the water utility’s accomplishment and gave the city its Exemplary Source Water Protection Award. Cahall says that the city’s ownership of the watershed “is one of the most important investments the city has made to ensure the vitality of the community.”

This long-term investment is what has allowed the city to avoid building a multimillion-dollar filtration plant. Not building such a plant is one reason that water rates in Bremerton have remained relatively low. Construction and operation of a treatment facility certainly will mean higher rates to pay for it. In fact, a study some years ago estimated that rates could double if a plant becomes part of the system. Currently, residential water users in Bremerton pay $2.34 per hundred cubic feet. The Seattle residential rate is on top of $5 per hundred cubic feet.

Rates have risen gradually over the years, of course. “We want to have as little impact as we can on our customers,” Cahall says, so incremental increases are the rule along with customer education. “Working with our public is a priority, using social media as effectively as we can. We prepare video programming about the water system for showing on local television. Our latest video highlights the watershed.”

Managing infrastructure

The absence of a filtration plant might seem a bit precarious. But even a sudden and large-scale contamination of the reservoir wouldn’t leave Bremerton without water. Cahall says ultraviolet and chlorine treatment facilities would be the first line of defense in such an emergency. While three-quarters of daily water use in the Bremerton system is pulled from the reservoir, the city has 13 active wells and three more in development. In the event of a dramatic increase in turbidity, supply would be temporarily switched from the reservoir to the wells. “We are constantly monitoring the water supply so we would have some early warning of a catastrophe.”

The water system serves 56,000 customers in and around the city, about a third of Kitsap County’s residents. Some 300 miles of water mains distribute the resource across a service area of about 35 square miles. A year ago, the Bremerton water system celebrated a century of service, its earliest waterlines being fabricated of wood. Today the average age of water pipe in the ground is 42 years and 45 percent of it is cast iron.

The city’s water and wastewater infrastructure was expanded and upgraded in the 1940s when the city’s population shot from 10,000 to 80,000 in a matter of months. Employment at Bremerton’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard had quickly ratcheted up in support of World War II military efforts. At war’s end, the city’s population contracted to less than 30,000 residents before settling in at about 40,000. The population decline eased some of the strain on the underground water infrastructure. Cahall says most waterline replacement work today is done in conjunction with street repair and replacement projects, with city crews installing mains and meters.

Unique identity

Bremerton is located west of Seattle across Puget Sound on the Kitsap Peninsula. The Port Washington Narrows runs through the city. Surface water is therefore plentiful in the urban area. The Naval shipyard employs 12,000 civilians and the facility is the major user of city water. The yard does maintenance work on U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines and other tasks that together utilize about a million gallons of water each day out of a daily flow of 6.5 million gallons. The water system has enough capacity in reserve, according to Cahall, to accommodate another high-water volume industry should it come to town.

Two ferries operate across the Puget Sound between Bremerton, the largest city in Kitsap County, and much-larger Seattle. There is “a fair amount” of commuting between the cities, Cahall says. “Bremerton is not necessarily a suburb. We have a separate identity from Seattle. There are a lot of jobs here locally.”

Bremerton’s proximity to Seattle is not at all evident in the condition of its water supply. The city has insulated itself — so far — from the effects of Seattle’s urban traffic and population density and contaminant potential. “We are very fortunate,” Cahall says. “We are located far from any influence of urban areas. There is no influence of urbanization on our water source, the headwaters of the Union River.”

The visionary decision by the city’s founders — notably, C.C. Casad, for whom the city’s dam is named — to incrementally buy thousands of acres of undeveloped land surrounding the river and then to build the dam that harnessed all that protected water continues to pay dividends. “It was his planning and foresight that led to the construction of the dam and protection of the watershed,” Cahall says. “Not many cities own their own large dam.”

Cahall and the 11 other professionals in the city’s water resources division are building on the legacy of Casad and other city leaders — though actual building is at a low point. Six years ago, the city built an advanced disinfection facility using funds from the Obama administration’s stimulus fund. A year ago, the city installed a $1.5 million cover on a 10-million-gallon treated water reservoir, the city’s largest, with the state picking up the tab.

“We’re in a good place right now in terms of infrastructure,” Cahall says. “We’ve done a lot of projects in the last decade, especially adding disinfectant activity. The city has done a good job of keeping up.”

Rolling with new regulations

Kathleen Cahall says the biggest change over her decades of work for the city of Bremerton, Washington, has been the volume of red tape. “I would say the biggest difference between 1991 and now is the complexity of the regulations,” she says.

Cahall spent 27 years as the city water resources manager in Bremerton and retired from the position in June 2017.

When she began working in Bremerton in 1991 after 11 years in wastewater treatment positions in Kitsap County and elsewhere, the federal EPA had been on the books for 21 years. The Safe Drinking Water Act was already 17 years old and the Clean Water Act in place for 14 years. “But a lot of water treatment regulations were just starting, some new rules just implemented,” she says. “They have been building in their complexity ever since. It has been a challenge to be in compliance, because the regulations sometimes conflict.”

New regulations in 1991 included the Surface Water Treatment Rule, the Total Coliform Rule, and the Lead and Copper Rule. “These regulations led Bremerton to make improvements in the early 1990s to our surface water system, to enhance already-strict watershed restrictions so we could remain unfiltered, and to evaluate and install corrosion control, which was completed in 1999.” In subsequent years, several generations of federal amendments and additions followed, including Stage 1 and 2 Disinfection Byproduct Rules and Consumer Confidence Reporting.

She describes one of her management tasks as “coordinating compliance.” Yet Cahall does not express impatience with her profession’s highly regulated environment. “I understand why it is that way,” she says. “But the measure of our job has become more complex.”

An outsider might wonder if the strict oversight from state and federal agencies has, in fact, impeded the work of people trying to keep water safe for drinking. Cahall doesn’t think so. “I think we understand the issues more and more and appreciate the regulations that protect public health and make our water even better.”


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