According to MLive updated on August 10th:
Bob Dion, Bay City’s water distribution supervisor, is still trying to forget about a taxing three-day search for the source of a water main break that triggered a countywide water usage emergency and served as a firm reminder that city infrastructure is old and fragile.
What started as a routine water main break on an August morning last year turned into a search for a needle in a haystack — one that garnered national attention and kept Bay City public works crews working around the clock.
“It was horrible,” Dion said. “There isn’t a worse feeling than trying to fix a problem when you have no idea where to start.”
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Bay County’s water emergency. In the past 12 months, Bay City public works officials have planned for new technology to better monitor its water distribution system, hired an employee to digitally map the city’s infrastructure and reviewed processes to make sure the best possible approach is used if and when the next time a broken water main wreaks havoc on Bay City.
In the works
Next month, a new, $59.6 million water treatment plant being built in Bangor Township with a 2.5-million-gallon reserve tank is scheduled to go online. That reserve tank is 7.5-million gallons smaller in size than Bay City’s 10-million-gallon tank, making it more imperative to be able to locate big water main breaks quickly.
But before locating breaks, city officials need to know where all of the infrastructure is exactly located and as much information about it as possible, from size to how many breaks it has experienced.
The cause of the water emergency, a ruptured 8-inch water main on the city’s East Side, wasn’t exactly the problem. It was a 36-inch storm drain pipe that water from the ruptured main made its way into that ultimately kept the source of the break a secret.
That storm drain wasn’t included on any of the city’s infrastructure records.
In October, the city hired Laura Anderson to be its geographic information system — or GIS — coordinator. Her job? Identify and document every piece of infrastructure in the city’s limits.
Nearly a year later, she has made progress.
“We’ve really focused on the water mains throughout the city,” Anderson said. “Now I have a priority of working on storm and sewer.”
In the coming year, city officials have budgeted to purchase a supervisory control and data acquisition system — or SCADA — to monitor flows and water pressure at set points.
While Bay City won’t own and operate the new water plant, it will continue distributing water using its existing infrastructure.
“The SCADA system is going to help us better pinpoint where a major break could be,” said Mark Vanderverg, a part-time consultant for the city’s public works department. “It doesn’t show us exactly where the break is, but it quickly eliminates places where it’s not.”
Dion said he can’t think of anything he would want his crews to do too differently if a mystery water main break were to happen again.
“Technology is great, but we rely on the community helping us and just putting boots on the ground,” he said. “You can’t do much better than eyes, ears and feet on the ground.”
A ‘major break’
Bay City officials sent out a public notice the morning of Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, asking for the public’s help in locating a “significant” water break.
“It’s a major main break, I’m guessing it’s a 12-inch or bigger, and we can’t find it,” Mike Wagar, a water plant operator told The Times that morning.
About 12 hours later, the situation became more serious. Dave Harran, the city’s former public works director who took a job with the city of Grand Rapids months after the water emergency, called it “urgent.”
The broken main was depleting the city’s water reserves by 5 million gallons every 12 hours. If normal water usage continued, the city reserves could have been emptied by the upcoming Monday, Harran said.
“If we run out of water, then we go on boil alert. It’s not a good situation right now,” he said about 24 hours after the main break was detected.
Officials banned all non-essential use of drinking water, such as watering lawns or washing cars. As a result, bottled water started flying off the shelves at Bay County grocery stores.
The crisis impacted most of Bay County as the county’s water system is supplied by the city’s water distribution system. Bay County residents who weren’t impacted by the emergency were residents in Auburn, the village of Linwood and Frankenlust Township west of Interstate-75.
While the incident was labeled as an emergency, simple water conservation ultimately bought crews more time to find the source of the break. Officials were asking residents to cut their shower times in half and consolidate toilet flushes if possible.
About 24 hours into the emergency, water pressure was at about 50 pounds per square inch — or PSI. If it were to drop to 25 PSI or lower, Bay County health officials would have needed to issue a water boil advisory.
After working for nearly 48 hours, crews still weren’t able to find the source of the broken water main break. They thought they were close when they turned off a main that stretches underneath the Saginaw River. Pressure increased by about 2 PSI, but then dropped off again. At that point, crews weren’t even close.
Crews started early Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, after a day of checking all of the city’s river crossings and conceivably every major main in the city. A Michigan State Police chopper was also used to search for flowing water in farm fields.
Another challenge crews were running into were secondary water main breaks. When crews turned back on water valves after checking mains, the rush of water damaged other nearby mains.
“It’s like a hammer when the water comes roaring back through those mains,” Terry Kilburn, the city’s water and sewer manager, said at the time.
Companies, like Consumers Energy, brought in experimental technology in hopes of finding the main, but didn’t have any luck.
Shortly before 3 p.m. that Monday, city crews discovered water gushing into the Saginaw River from an abandoned storm drain pipe on property near the city’s wastewater treatment plant, 2905 N. Water St.
Glenn Fonzi, who owns a business on the property, called in the tip.
The water tested positive for chlorine, meaning it had been treated. Mystery solved.
An 8-inch water main that runs north and south completely blew out at North Water Street and North Trumbull Drive. Water from that main made its way into a 36-inch storm drain that discharges into the Saginaw River, leaving minimal evidence above ground during the 72 hours crews were searching for the source.
That storm drain wasn’t documented in city records at the time.
It’s now on the books.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to forget about that pipe anytime soon,” Vanderverg said.
At the moment crews discovered the source of the break, a major rain event dumped 6 inches of rain across Bay County. If the tip never came in, chances are the situation would have gotten even more serious.
“If it was any later, there’s no way at all that we would have fount it where we did in this rain,” Harran said at the time. “There’s just no way.”
The bigger issue
At a public meeting following the water emergency, Bay City Commissioner Christopher Girard, 6th Ward, said it would cost millions of dollars to replace the city’s aging infrastructure.
“It’s a question we need to ask ourselves, though, and I don’t think we’re ready to answer it.”
The city’s aging infrastructure continues to be a big issue. This year alone, city crews have repaired 56 broken water mains. There were 82 in 2014; 61 in 2013; 108 in 2012; 48 in 2011; and 72 in 2010.
Bill Bohlen, the city’s public works director who was hired earlier this year, came from a public works job in Rochester. His last year on the job, the city only had four water main breaks.
“It seems like we have at least four every week here — sometimes more,” he said.
“It’s a major concern, not just because of the toll on our infrastructure, but the fact that our staff is beginning to become very tired.”
A major stretch of bad water main on Euclid Avenue currently is being replaced as part of a project scheduled to wrap up by year’s end, but there are other areas across the city, especially in the South End, according to city data, where mains are always breaking.
Bohlen’s top priority going forward is developing a long-term work plan focused on updating the city’s infrastructure.
“Our guys are out in the field all the time making repairs,” he said. “We need to be constantly looking at ways to improve our water system and all of our infrastructure.”