Water streamed from a broken fire hydrant on Sandy Springs’ Kayron Drive all summer, digging a miniature riverbed along the curb as it flowed about 400 feet away. While the region was under state water-use restrictions due to drought conditions, the leak saturated neighboring lawns into muddy sponges.

“I just can’t believe the amount of water,” said resident Richard Cross, pointing out the stream flowing into his lawn and driveway on a September afternoon – more than 10 weeks after he first called it in.

Resident Richard Cross discusses the water flowing through his yard and driveway from a broken hydrant on Kayron Drive. (John Ruch)

That hydrant at 6076 Kayron is one of more than 170 around the city that are broken or malfunctioning, with repair wait times averaging three or four months, depending on severity, according to Sandy Springs officials. And there’s nothing they can do directly, because the hydrants — and almost the entire city water system — is owned and operated by the city of Atlanta, which built it out decades ago.

Lingering leaks and high water rates have been complaints since Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005, but Mayor Rusty Paul is vowing to finally find a fix in his upcoming second term. He’s even threatening to sue Atlanta for control of the water system.

“Fire hydrants are the most visible public safety issue, but the water system here is riddled with problems,” Paul said at the Sept. 5 City Council meeting, following the latest report on hydrant issues. “It’s going to be a top priority.”

However, both the nature of the problem and possible solutions remain partly mysterious. Paul, through a spokesperson, declined to elaborate on what city control of the water system would involve. And it remains unclear why a water repair agreement between the two cities, under which Sandy Springs would make local fixes and Atlanta would pay reimbursements, fell apart after coming close to being signed in April 2016.

“It was their decision, not ours,” said Sandy Springs city spokesperson Sharon Kraun, adding that the exact reason was never clear.

Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, which is in charge of the water system, did not respond to emailed questions — though it did, on the same day, send a notice to Kayron Drive residents announcing that leaking hydrant would soon be fixed.

In early 2016, during a previous round of concerns about broken hydrants, a Watershed Management spokesperson said the department aims to repair the devices within 45 days, but could not explain why it often takes months. At that time, the spokesperson noted Atlanta’s system includes about 14,000 hydrants and that Sandy Springs’ own permitting process can take weeks.

Safety concerns
Fire hydrants are a focus of Sandy Springs’ water complaints because the leaks are easy to see and the public safety implications get attention from the city Fire Rescue Department, which inspects all hydrants. Fire Rescue Chief Keith Sanders, in a report at the Sept. 5 City Council meeting, said broken hydrants on public streets are a concern, but the fire hazard is limited because of the large number of other hydrants that firefighters can usually access with a long hose.

As of this month, Sanders reported, there are 171 broken or malfunctioning public hydrants. That amounts to about 5.5 percent of the 3,115 Atlanta-operated hydrants in Sandy Springs. (Another 90 hydrants in the panhandle area are operated by Gwinnett County.)

“Fortunately, we do have good water pressure in the city and we have a significant number of hydrants,” Sanders said.

The real safety concern, he said, are the additional 1,082 hydrants located on private property, where private owners are responsible for inspection and maintenance. Non-working hydrants were a major issue at two local apartment complex fires in 2011 that drew city attention.

Of those private hydrants, 470 are on commercial property, which includes apartment complexes. That means they must file hydrant inspections as a requirement to get a business license, and compliance is good, Sanders reported.

A broken hydrant leaks a stream of water onto Kayron Drive. The water had flowed since June. (John Ruch)

The other 612 private hydrants are in such residential locations as condo complexes, where owner association leaders can change and inspections are hard to track. At one property, Sanders said, Fire Rescue officials recently found a “dead hydrant” – one that was installed but never connected to the water system.

In March, the city hand-delivered letters to owners at all of those private-hydrant addresses asking for proof the hydrants had been professionally inspected. In response, owners proved compliance on 220 hydrants, and not on 392 hydrants, he said. Another round of letters went out in late August.

Long repair times
Broken hydrants on public streets are a safety concern for Sandy Springs officials. Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, at the Sept. 5 meeting, said that long repair waits could leave the city telling a fire victim, “Sorry your house burned down, but we had another five months before your hydrants were repaired.”

And the wait times can indeed be that long, according to statistics provided by Sanders.

Between August 2016 and August 2017, 140 hydrants in the city were marked as “out of service.” The average repair time was over three months.

Another 105 hydrants were marked “urgent,” meaning they were malfunctioning but could still be used; their average repair time was over four months.

And, Sanders said, “repaired” doesn’t always mean what it says.

“And the sad part is, we have to go out and check those hydrants … to ensure they were repaired by the city of Atlanta,” Sanders said, only to find that that “many times, they were not repaired.”

Sanders, who previously served as fire chief in Alpharetta, said such wait times do not seem normal to him.

“I never experienced a hydrant out over a week or two” in his former job, he said. “So it’s been a real eye-opener here.”

The real surprise to the City Council: repair times for hydrants and other water leaks are actually shorter than they were roughly a year ago.

“They have improved over time,” said Kraun.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.