Troops and families at remote Fort Hunter Liggett on California’s rugged Central Coast have been without clean drinking water in their taps since the evening of Aug. 11, when a routine water system maintenance check went wrong, cracking a valve and rupturing a 12-inch water main.
Officials initially shut off water to the entire post, which is also currently battling a wildfire in a training area, to prevent a catastrophic failure, the garrison’s top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Rupp, said in a Friday phone interview with Army Times.
Within hours of the water shutoff, drinking water trailers, known as “water buffalo,” from Camp Roberts, a 40-minute drive away, and portable toilets arrived on post, Rupp said. Residents also realized that their geothermal-powered air conditioners wouldn’t function without water — though temperatures have been cool in recent days.
About 90% of the post has regained running water that can be used for bathing but isn’t yet safe to drink without boiling, though one housing area has no water at all. Rupp said the 47 families who live there faced “mandatory relocation” to other on-post housing or hotels.
Approximately 500 personnel permanently live at the Army Reserve post overseen by Installation Management Command, which features sprawling training areas. The installation also hosts between a few hundred and a few thousand servicemembers for training — ranging from individual courses to drill weekends and unit annual trainings — at any given time.
According to Rupp, the fort’s public works division is assessing the damage to the housing area’s water system in order to begin repairs. Water quality tests are currently pending to see if the water in the taps elsewhere is safe to drink, he added.
It’s not clear when the issue will be resolved, though Rupp said that officials hope to have clean water across the entire post by Aug. 30. Garrison officials communicated that to residents in a pair of town hall meetings.
Rupp noted that the incident did not affect the wildfire response, which has included an Army Reserve firefighter unit whose annual training plans happened to coincide with a real-life wildfire. The Los Bueyes Fire is now 90% contained, according to an email from installation spokesperson Augusta Vargas.
How are residents and training affected?
On-post families were offered voluntary relocation to hotels, though troops in training had to stay. Some personnel were allowed to telework as needed.
The sergeant major added that the training population there is “pretty low” currently after a summer surge of part-time units doing annual training. No units have changed their training plans for the coming weeks, he said.
Parts of the installation had running water by Saturday evening, according to an all-caps Facebook post that ordered residents “NOT [TO] DRINK THE WATER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER.”
That warning since been replaced by a boil water notice for areas where service has resumed.
The water outage led the post to close its dining facility last week, leaving the post’s training population with only prepackaged rations — MREs — to eat. Rupp said the facility has reopened to serve pre-packaged meals until the water is confirmed to be safe for cooking.
The on-post daycare also closed due to the water issues, said Rupp. It’s poised to reopen Monday.
Fort Hunter Liggett isn’t the only military installation to suffer water-related issues in recent months.
The Navy faced criticism after a fuel spill at the Red Hill fuel storage facility in Hawaii tainted the water supply, sickening thousands of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham residents and forcing around 4,000 families to relocate. The Defense Department decided to close the fuel facility under pressure from state authorities.
And in December, a brief lead scare led officials at Fort Benning, Georgia, to close its NCO academy temporarily.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.