Before the big flush: What you might not know about where your water’s from, and not from


By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

That big tank on SW Barton, about halfway between Westwood Village and the Fauntleroy Ferry Dock – officially known as the Barton Standpipe – is empty and decommissioned.

We didn’t know that until our recent visit to Seattle Public Utilities‘ Operations Control Center in SODO:

IMG_2744 (1)

At the heart of that visit was a preview of the big flushing operation that SPU is about to start in West Seattle in hopes of lessening the recurring brown-water problems we’ve been covering since last fall. (Even today, we’ve received scattered reports of discoloration – no word on the cause this time.) We published our first flush preview on March 31st, and then followed up on April 8th with the first look at what was being mailed out to local homes.

Now, months of targeted flushing is about to begin in the area shown on this map:

W Seattle Flush Map Apr 8_FINAL

SPU was planning to start with test flushes late tonight at California/Spokane and 49th/Spokane (11:34 pm update: they’re under way, as shown in our quick added video clip).

They’ll be working out the process for a night or two. So we’re taking the opportunity to report the rest of the story behind how SPU gets water to you.

The briefing started with numbers – Seattle Public Utilities provides water to 1.3 million people. 600,000 of them are their customers, with 184,000 service connections; 700,000 of them are wholesale customers with 124,000 connections. The water comes from four “raw-water reservoirs,” two treatment plants, 30 portable storage facilities, 29 pump stations, 27 major pressure zones, and 1,800 miles of pipeline. More than two-thirds of the supply comes from the Cedar River Watershed, most of the rest from the Tolt – both managed by SPU “from snowflake to tap,” the utility says – and then there’s the “well field” south of Seattle that is “really just supplemental,” it’s explained.

Managing the Cedar River is complicated, to say the least, and probably could be an entirely separate story. Let’s just say it has a lot of stakeholders – including salmon. But they don’t go through the 8-foot pipe that diverts Cedar water to Lake Youngs for the drinking-water supply. It’s a human-made lake, created after a pipeline washout more than a century ago left Seattle without water for two weeks.

While the aforementioned wells are not often summoned into use, they were drawn on for four months last year because of the then-drought, and adding them into the system played a role in the West Seattle brown-water problems, SPU told us back then.


When they’re in use, the aquifer water is treated on site – two wells in Riverton with 7,000,000 gallons a day capacity, one in Boulevard Park with 3,000,000 gallons a day – and pumped into the “West Seattle Pipeline,” which in turn feeds up to the West Seattle Reservoir next to Westcrest Park in Highland Park.

Once the water gets here, it’s on to the distribution system. As mentioned above – the Barton Standpipe has been decommissioned. But the Charlestown Standpipe contains water. Storage around the area helps “equalize supply and demand,” also helps with settlement of “suspended particles,” and in some storage facilities there’s “booster chlorination” if needed. Eighty percent of the system is delivered without pumping, but in some areas it’s necessary, and that’s why those 29 pump stations are in operation (different from the sewer-system pump stations you tend to hear a lot about) – most are used to fill storage facilities.

Distribution includes delivery, and that’s where the water mains come in. They’re among the oldest assets in the system, and collectively, the most valuable. Some are made of cast-iron, which is the source of the rust that constitutes much of the discoloration with which we’ve had problems.
Some are steel, some concrete, some from plastics. Some have coatings/linings but most of the system is unlined pipe – and when it’s unlined cast iron, that’s where the rust buildup is. Internal corrosion affects carrying capacity, efficiency, and water quality.

An unexpected fact emerges here: Water conservation has really taken hold. Though our area’s population has grown, the amount of water sold by SPU has shrunk – the summer peak is now about 220 million gallons a day; not that long ago, it was 350 million gallons a day.

Now to the pressure zones, which play into the flushing that will be done. Here’s the West Seattle map:


The zones relate to topography, which SPU managers explained presents challenges for keeping the water flowing and keeping rust/sediment from building up; some parts of our area are supplied by gravity, some by pumping. On the map below, the green zone (270) is served via gravity; buff (498), pink (550), purple (585) are the zones that need pumping.

Most of West Seattle is in 498, so, SPU managers told us, “if we clean that up [via flushing], we can move into 550.”

After that lesson, we moved into the control room for the system:


That’s operations manager David Muto in the photo above. He explained that the room is staffed 24/7, as a “complex network of pipes, storage, pump stations, valves” and more is monitored continuously. This is a big change, however, from the days when the system was dotted by “little pump stations staffed 24 hours a day, all out in the field,” and there was no way to get an overview of how the system was doing.

From the center, the processes that are monitored include even river-flow gauges and dam-failure-warning systems for way out at the edge of what brings in your water. An acronym appears here – SCADA, Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. The original version was launched in 1958; then, when the control center was built in 1972, its second generation was launched, and that lasted until 2006. Now, they’re using Windows-based workstations, with redundant LINUX servers, a dedicated communications network, and more. Taking a quick look at the West Seattle section of the system, we see it broken down to facilities such as the north tank at Myrtle Reservoir and the south tank in Myrtle Reservoir.

We ask Muto about failsafes. “Everything can be done manually in the field,” he explains.

And that’s where some things – like the flushing operation that’s about to begin – have to be done. If you haven’t yet read the information sent out by SPU, here are two pages of questions and answers. They are trying to ensure the flushing has a minimal effect, but it could lead to the problem it’s meant to lessen, and the Q&A document reminds you that brown water which doesn’t go away quickly should be reported to 206-386-1800. We’ll continue to follow what SPU does, and what the results are, in the days, weeks, months ahead.

22 Replies to "Before the big flush: What you might not know about where your water's from, and not from"

  • Tony S April 17, 2016 (9:41 pm)

    9:30pm at Hanford and 37th. Our water just went brown. Right on schedule, I guess you’d say.

    • WSB April 17, 2016 (9:45 pm)

      I won’t be able to go check on the “test flush” for about half an hour but SPU had said they wouldn’t start before 11 pm most if not all nights. So it could be a coincidence unless SPU tells you otherwise – 206-386-1800 …

  • Oakley34 April 17, 2016 (9:48 pm)

    Interesting stuff.  I wonder how the water conservation numbers compare nationally.  Despite the recent drought  the PNW is not exactly hard up for water (cross your fingers) so it is encouraging to see the trend.  I wonder how it compares to harder hit regions and elsewhere, and if this stuff is tracked nationally (one imagines, but surprising things go unstatted).

  • Debra April 17, 2016 (9:58 pm)

    Water @ 46th and Andover also brown. And a bit cloudy. :(

  • Meghan April 17, 2016 (10:04 pm)

    Dark water at 9:45 pm.  49th & Hinds. 

  • JayD April 17, 2016 (10:14 pm)

    Hadn’t kept up with the story since we haven’t had problems, but just now (1013p) just north of the junction our water is running brown. Time to play info catch up (and make a bottled water run?)

  • Jeremy April 17, 2016 (10:16 pm)

    Also brown at 42nd & Lander tonight. This is the first time I’ve seen it.

  • JayD April 17, 2016 (10:21 pm)

    Also (not sure if I can edit in mobile) but we are a few blocks south of the area on the map they mailed out.

  • Hannah April 17, 2016 (10:25 pm)

    Cloudy and brown on Avalon between 35th and Genessee. First I’ve heard about this flushing, too.

    • WSB April 17, 2016 (10:35 pm)

      Folks, again, I can’t say for sure that the brown water is related to the flushing – I’m headed out now to see if they started – so PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call SPU at the number I mentioned, which is what they have been telling us for months to tell folks in any case of brown water. 206-386-1800.

  • JayD April 17, 2016 (10:48 pm)

    Just got off the phone with SPU. They said it IS due to the flushing, even though we arent in the zone. They recommended running a bathtub worth of cold water in the morning to flush it out on our end.

    Oh, and as point of interest, while she assured the water was “safe”, she did say we may want to use bottled water for our 3 week old. 

  • Diane April 17, 2016 (11:06 pm)

    Our water is brown at 56th and Dakota – first noticed at 930 PM.

  • dsa April 17, 2016 (11:11 pm)

    What is the reason for doing the flushing at night instead of in the daylight?  Do they have multiple crews?  It only took one person to flush the hydrant in front of my house.

    • WSB April 17, 2016 (11:20 pm)

      If you read our first story about it – this isn’t just a matter of opening the hydrant. It’s more complicated. Doing at night, as explained in the SPU communications from April 8th, is supposed to make it less noticeable … though I’ll be interested to hear tomorrow why something involved in the process was triggered well before 11 pm. Meantime, I just came back from California/Spokane, and while the water wasn’t going at 10:55, after I went around the block (no way to get close up – we’re expecting that opportunity in a night or two) they started it up at 11 sharp. Adding a quick video clip as soon as it’s uploaded. – TR

  • dsa April 17, 2016 (11:31 pm)

    Thanks, found it.  pressure is higher because use is lower

  • WestSeattleCoug April 18, 2016 (5:36 am)

    Brown this morning – 37th Ave SW between Landers and Stevens.

  • Cs in hp April 18, 2016 (8:18 am)

    This is fascinating- thank you for reporting and explaining so thoroughly! 

  • JVP April 18, 2016 (10:49 am)

    Great story, thanks for digging deep into this and doing more than just reporting.

  • BoristheSpider April 18, 2016 (3:22 pm)

    Even though I’ve had brown water several times over the past few months, I’m more concerned about fluoride.

    Stop fluoridation of our water SPU!

    It’s outdated and poison.

  • Diane April 18, 2016 (6:41 pm)

    curious if any apt dwellers received these promised mailers, or only those in houses; I’m in apt in Belvidere; zero mailers at our address and we are on this current map; thank god we have you to tell us wth is going on

  • Tim April 18, 2016 (9:25 pm)

    Brown water on Beacon Hill. 32nd ave S. between Graham and Orcas. Just started tonight about 9pm.

    • WSB April 18, 2016 (9:29 pm)

      Well, that wouldn’t be related to this. But do call SPU – 206-386-1800. And if anyone in north West Seattle sees an SPU crew tonight, let us know – we don’t have the locations for tonight’s flushing.

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