Poway’s water woes due to out-of-compliance infrastructure, state official says

The city of Poway’s water storage reservoir is out of compliance, a state official says.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The city will be cited for a violation, and water use may not be restored until this weekend.


A state official said Wednesday he intends to notify the city of Poway that its water storage reservoir is out of compliance, a situation he said directly contributed to last week’s storm water overflow that has left the entire community under a boil-water advisory and temporarily shuttered nearly 200 businesses.

Sean Sterchi, San Diego district engineer for the state’s Water Resources Control Board division of drinking water, said regulations say reservoir overflow connections can’t be directly connected to a sewer or storm drain.

But Poway’s clear-well reservoir, built in the 1960s, is connected to the storm water system and the state will now require the city to prepare a plan to fix what is probably going to be a very expensive problem, he said.


“The city of Poway’s clear well is in fact directly connected to the storm drain, and that was the cause of the back-flow incident which resulted in the boil-water advisory,” Sterchi said. Last week’s heavy rainfall “caused the storm drain to back up into the reservoir.”

“Because we now know this is an issue and that it doesn’t meet the current standards, we will be issuing a citation to the city of Poway to ask them to submit a plan for a long-term solution — to either meet the current water works standards or propose an alternative design that would be equivalent public health protection.”

Poway Public Works Director Eric Heidemann explained that a 48-inch storm water pipe runs beneath the clear well, which holds about 10 million gallons of treated water ready for distribution. He said attached to the pipe is an “overflow weir box” that is adjacent to the reservoir and is there as a safety precaution. Should the clear well become too full, water spills into the box and then into the drain.

But when last week’s rains came, the storm water pipe became engorged and water went up into the weir box where a flap designed only to open if water was being discharged into the pipe became stuck, allowing storm water, and the debris it contained, to enter the well.

The next day some customers noticed the water was discolored. The state was notified, and the boil-water advisory was issued and testing began.

City officials were caught off guard by Sterchi’s comments and said they had never been notified of any compliance problem, despite yearly inspections.

“Today we learned a representative with the State Water Resources Control Board told the media the city’s clear well is out of compliance because of its proximity to a storm drain,” said a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.


“This comes as a shock to the city because in September 2019 we received a report from SWRCB with no indication that there was any storm drain compliance issue at the clear well. In fact, in the more than 50 years the facility has been in operation and under regular inspection by the state, the city has never been made aware of a compliance issue of this nature,” the statement said.

It continued: “Since the precautionary boil-water advisory was put in place, city staff have been working around the clock in accordance with state guidelines to get the Poway water system back online. As we have previously stated, testing results show that Poway water continues to meet health standards, including three certified test results showing that the water is absent of bacteria.”

Sterchi said he wasn’t sure what past inspections had shown because he wasn’t in his office and didn’t have immediate access to those records. But he said it doesn’t matter.

“It’s really irrelevant,” he said. “It’s an old design that has obviously a sanitary risk to it, and moving forward it’s something we will expect them to address.”

The boil-water advisory has caused the county’s health department to order all restaurants and bars closed in the city of 50,000 people, causing continuing and worsening economic hardships for employees and owners.

Residents are also being told not to drink or cook with tap water without first boiling it. The city has given out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water to residents since the advisory went into effect Saturday night.

Sterchi said water testing is ongoing, and it’s possible the advisory could be lifted as early as Friday, should the tests continue to show no problems, but perhaps not until Saturday or Sunday.

The city has been flushing out pipes all over the community, officials said.

Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.