Why So Many Water Outages?
There is clearly an unacceptable number of ongoing water outages and sometimes resulting Boil Water Notices.
What is going on?
One major reason is that many underground water lines in Elkins are past their end-of-life and need to be replaced.
The reason problems have spiked lately in South Elkins, however, is related to the great amount of soil disturbance that occurred as part of the sewer/stormwater separation project earlier this year. (It appears that the soil under much of South Elkins is *extremely* soft and bordering on liquid in places.)
Making things even worse are the large number of broken valves throughout our system. Valves are used to turn off the flow of water to certain sections of the system.
In a perfect world, for last night’s repair on Whiteman Avenue, we could have closed a valve that would have caused an outage for only a small number of surrounding customers.
However, because many of the smaller valves are not functioning, it is necessary to instead turn off valves on larger mains, which results in outages over a much wider area. (This is one reason why our water workers often attempt to make repairs “under pressure,” meaning without turning off the water, to avoid these outages. This means they must work with spraying water, which is obviously less practical as the weather gets colder.)
So, what is the city doing about this?
Council has dedicated a portion of ARPA funds to an engineering study and plan for the systematic replacement and upgrading of the city’s water lines. Although we won’t know exact costs of such a project until this study is complete, it will likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
Addressing this problem is a current focus of council and the Water Board and plans are being formulated to address it, however it will be a long process. It may be that the valve issue is “low hanging fruit” and could be addressed sooner than later, reducing the number of widespread outages. We are actively working to determine this.
Some Facebook commenters have wondered what would happen if there were a fire in an area experiencing an outage. Keep in mind that these outages result not from the water-main break but from turning off the water at a valve. If there were a fire and hydrants were needed in an affected area, we would simply reenergize the valve and restore service. Although this would cause the broken pipe to start leaking again, this would obviously be acceptable in the face of a need to protect life and property from fire.
Other Facebook commenters wondered why we don’t predict when repairs will be completed when there are outages. The problem is that we just don’t know. For example, especially due to the extremely brittle cast-iron pipes prevalent in South Elkins, sometimes turning the water on after one leak triggers another, which can as much as double repair times. It is just not practical to try to accurately predict repair times.
Another issue: Even if we had the tens of millions of dollars necessary to make all needed improvements in hand right now, there are and will continue to be significant inventory problems, due to both the pandemic supply-chain issues and the fact that every city in the country has ARPA funds to spend on projects like this, including huge cities with much larger projects *and* much larger ARPA disbursements that are able to basically clear the shelves of the same pipes and valves we would need.
Everyone at the city (many of whom live in South Elkins are affected themselves) is frustrated about this situation and deeply regrets the frequent inconvenience. We hope everyone understands that this is a big problem that cannot be fixed overnight but is being worked on.
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