Look out water thieves: City is watching for you

Steve Craigue

Steve Craigue

Kent city officials want residents to help watch for and report mobile fleet-washing companies and others that are reportedly stealing water from municipal fire hydrants.

The city has been losing money, thanks to the theft of water by several fleet-washing companies and other contractors. The thieves also are damaging hydrants and creating the potential for contaminating city water supplies.

“We are seeing an increase (in 2008) compared to what has happened the past 10 years,” said Brad Lake, city water superintendent, in a Dec. 23 phone interview. “We want more emphasis on catching folks for a warning or a fine from the police department.”

If residents see a truck using a hydrant without a water meter, they should jot down the vehicle’s license-plate number as well as the name of the company, and call the Kent Public Works Department at 253-856-5600.

“If we get a license plate number, we can follow it up,” Lake said.

Here’s how to spot an illegal water hookup: The hose is attached directly to the hydrant without a water meter attached. Even city vehicles use water meters to monitor the amount of water they’re using. Companies can fill up trucks in as quick as 10 minutes, depending on the size of the truck’s water tank.

The city can fine companies up to $300 per day for using hydrants without a permit or meter. Police also can cite the companies for theft of water or malicious mischief for damage to the hydrants.

City policy requires companies to get a permit, water meter and a specific wrench from the public works department to legally use fire hydrants. The city’s permit fees are $50 for 1-inch water meters and $100 for 3-inch meters. Permits are valid for up to 60 days.

Contractors that provide mobile fleet-washing services use the hydrants to fill up trucks with water before heading to a job site.

But a few companies hook hoses directly to the hydrant and use pipe wrenches to open the valve rather than using the city-issued water meter and wrench.

“They can break the (valve) stem and that makes it non-operating when the fire department shows up,” Lake said. “And the hoses (without a proper connection) can contaminate the water.”

Lake said the water meter helps to control backflow that can contaminate the water supply. City workers constantly repair hydrants damaged by improper use.

Gwen Abraham, who works in accounting services for the Kent Public Works Department, bills the companies that get permits and check out water meters. She discovered even a few of the companies that check out water meters don’t always use them when hooking up to the hydrants.

“A company with a 500-gallon truck, the cost would be at least $20 per fill,” Abraham said. “They have the meter for 60 days and the meter charge is $11 total. There’s no way. Even if they only had one fill per day, the cost for 60 days would be $1,200.”

City officials said they are unable to estimate how much revenue the city has lost because it’s difficult to know how many companies illegally fill trucks and how much water those companies take.

“We really don’t know,” Lake said. “But we try to talk to companies to educate them. We’ve had meetings with a couple of companies. We’ve issued a couple of citations, but that’s not what we prefer to do.”

City employees recently caught one company stealing water from a hydrant and gave the company a warning, Lake said. The next day city employees caught the same company hooked up again to a hydrant without a meter. Police cited the firm for theft.

Besides fleet-washing companies, contractors at construction sites use the hydrants for pressure washing. The city also has issued permits for filling up swimming pools.

The city started a permit system for companies to use fire hydrants more than a decade ago, because of the thefts from the hydrants.

“Kent felt it was better to have a program to use the hydrants properly, meter it and protect the system from damage,” Lake said. “And we can use legal enforcement to go after folks who take water illegally.”

Lake has met with the Kent Police to help inform officers to keep an eye out for illegal use of the hydrants.

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