DUNCAN, Okla. – When extremely cold temperatures moved through the Southern U.S in January, several water utilities struggled with hard freezes, broken pipes and low pressure. Rural Water professionals from Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi worked to find leaks, make repairs and restore service to the impacted communities. News reports indicated that weather-related boil orders doubled after the wave of cold.
The Alabama Rural Water Association provided leak detection services to Roanoke, Ala. to help locate and repair a water main leak that was bubbling to the surface and creating thick patches of ice on the highway.
ARWA also sent circuit riders to the Town of Hayneville after leaks dropped system pressure so low that the local school was closed and a boil order was issued. The utility had been trying to repair smaller leaks to maintain pressure, but those repairs weren’t having enough positive effect. Circuit Rider David Brooks started working to isolate parts of the distribution system and search for leaks.
“The situation was complicated by the lack of a map showing the system layout or valve locations,” Brooks said.
Brooks and workers from the utility located several valves that were previously unknown. Using these valves, they narrowed the search area to the center of town. The next day, Circuit Riders Derek Peirce and Andrew Crawford arrived to assist.
“We found a large amount of water flowing through an underground storm water collection system next to a six-inch water main,” Brooks said. “The leak was flowing directly into the culvert. It would have been impossible to detect without the specialized ARWA leak detection equipment.”
The leak was an eight-foot-long split in the main, spilling 350 gallons per minute into the culvert. Once the line was repaired, the water tanks began to fill and water pressure returned to normal.
Cold temperatures also impacted utilities in Louisiana. Timmy Lemoine, a Circuit Rider with the Louisiana Rural Water Association assisted the City of Tallulah, La. and the Village of Waterproof, La.
“I arrived in Tallulah on a Sunday,” Lemoine said. “They couldn’t keep up with the demand and were under the impression that they had a huge leak in the distribution system.”
The utility had bypassed its 500,000-gallon ground storage tank and was pumping directly into the water tower to try to maintain pressure for more than 3,000 customers and three prisons the utility served.
Lemoine and Circuit Rider Todd Abshire first inspected the system’s four wells to see how much water the wells were producing. Three of the wells had meters and Lemonie used a portable flow meter that can detect water flow in any exposed pipe. That’s where the Circuit Riders found the first problem.
“The well meters were reading inaccurately,” he explained. “One well was supposed to be producing around 500 gallons per minute, but it was only producing 190 gallons per minute.”
It was the first step in meeting the demand, but Lemoine and Abshire would have to return the next day when there was enough light to complete more repairs. The next day, they inspected the water plant and found a several leaks.
“They had two valves that had frozen and burst,” Lemoine said. “There was also a cracked horizontal filter that had around a 200 gallons per minute leak that was recirculating back into the plant.”
After replacing the valves and the filter, the Circuit Riders found an issue with the pump pushing water from the treatment plant into the water tower.
“The pump was capable of running 1,200 gallons per minute, but it would run for a short time until the clear well would pump down and then cut off,” Lemoine said. “They would get a little water in the tower and when the pump cut off it was gone.”
They adjusted the valves to accommodate the flow and keep the pumping running.
“They started gaining pressure almost immediately,” Lemoine said.
The community still had several leaks from customers with frozen pipes under their homes. The plan was to cut off water to the largest users after 10 p.m. and restore service at 6 a.m. It would allow the tanks to fill overnight and provide service until customers could get their leaks repaired. LRWA’s assistance didn’t just restore water service, it improved the basic functions of the utility.
“The Mayor texted me a few days later and said the system was running as good as it ever had,” Lemoine said.
Lemonie next assisted the Village of Waterproof, La., which started losing water after the hard freeze and led to several breaks under homes in the community.
“It’s an older town with lots of homes on blocks instead of a concrete slab,” Lemoine explained. “When they opened up the valves, they would immediately lose all the water in the tower.”
The first step was to turn off all the valves to let the tower fill. Once the tower was full and providing pressure to the distribution system, Lemoine sectioned the town.
“We went through town opening and closing valves,” he explained. “When we found high demand at a house, we asked if they were running a tap. It they were we asked them to please turn it off. If not, they had a leak and we turned off the service until they got the leak repaired.”
It’s the same procedure that LRWA uses after hurricanes.
Leaks and broken pipes led to disruptions in Mississippi. Charles Odom, a Circuit Rider with the Mississippi Rural Water Association assisted the Poplar Springs Water District and the Hiwannee Water District.
“To say that we were in dire straits is an understatement,” Perry Lee, President of the Poplar Springs Water District said in a letter. “The cold weather we were experiencing at that date was the coldest I can ever remember.”
Odom received a call from the Poplar Springs President after several customers were without water for two days. Utility personnel suspected the outage was caused by a large leak caused by a recent hard freeze.
“I started checking pressure and cutting off valves,” Odom explained. “The information I was seeing was more likely a restriction than a leak.”
Odom would connect a pressure gauge to the distribution system and open or close valves to observe changes in pressure.
“I was connected to a house upstream and when we opened the valves the pressure stayed the same,” Odom said. “If it was a leak the pressure would have dropped.”
His search eventually located an unknown valve near a creek.
“We found a valve no one knew about,” Odom said. “The stem had dropped into the valve, causing the obstruction.”
Replacing the valve restored water service. All the repairs were completed in less than a day.
“I am extremely aware that this weather front caused many problems for many systems,” Lee said. “I could not have asked for a more prompt response considering the circumstances.”
The Hiwannee Water District had a line break that left roughly 272 people without water for four days. The situation was complicated because the utility’s two longest-serving System Operations Specialists were off work because of health – one following a stroke and the other heart bypass surgery. The utility was already operating on lower than normal pressures because one of its tanks was out of service for painting. Fortunately, Odom was familiar with Hiwannee.
“I’m real familiar with the system because I’ve hunted leaks there before,” he explained.
Several customers had line breaks on their side of the meter. Odom spent two days turning off valves and searching for leaks. The search finally located a broken two-inch line down a dead-end road.
“It was not buried deep,” Odom said.
Once the line was repaired, the system could maintain the pressure needed to provide water to all their customers.