Trying to catch a break

Water: A frigid spell plays havoc with the city's aging system, as crews rush to respond to more than 250 leaking mains - double the number reported in January last year.

January 26, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Two cast-iron pipes run side by side beneath the intersection of Egges Lane and Melrose Avenue in Catonsville.

One is a broken water main. The other is a gas line.

On Friday, Chester Green and his city maintenance crew faced one of the job's pricklier situations. A utility worker, who met them at the scene, could not tell them which pipe was which.

"We just have to assume that the first pipe we come to is the gas line," says Green, a 16-year water maintenance veteran. That assumption makes fixing the water main in Baltimore County a slow, three- to four-hour chore.

And with frigid weather causing water mains to crack, split or spring leaks at a record rate in the city and county, the deliberate pace of the job at Egges and Melrose means there are even fewer workers to go around.

"Everybody wants immediate action," said George L. Winfield, director of the city's Department of Public Works. "We can't be everywhere."

About 265 million gallons of water flow through 3,600 miles of water mains daily in the system, which serves 1.8 million people in the city and Baltimore County, and parts of Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties. Fixing pipes 50 to 100 years old takes slow, methodical excavation and careful pipefitting, sometimes in brutal conditions.

Workers such as Green and his crew must break through frozen ground to work amid gushing muddy water in temperatures that have reached as low as 11 degrees this month.

More than 250 water main breaks have taken place this month, double the number during the same period last year, said August Severn, acting chief of the city's Water and Waste Water Maintenance Division. A drive around the region reveals dozens of seemingly random patches of ice and slush - evidence of leaking pipes and the city's efforts to fix them.

"We have 26 crews of five people working around the clock," according to Severn, who said he had not seen conditions this bad in 25 years.

The city and county usually see the most water main breaks during freezing and extremely hot weather. Pipes crack when the ground contracts in the cold and expands in heat. Still, the Department of Public Works says 200 is in the high range for any month.

The department's budget includes $11 million for water main improvements, with $6 million used for cleaning and lining aging pipes and $5 million to pay for water main and hydrant replacements, said spokesman Kurt Kocher.

Kocher said overtime costs have not been tallied. Crews have been placed on a "freeze schedule": no days off and three eight-hour shifts replaced by two 12-hour shifts, starting yesterday.

"It's been awful," said Nate Copeland, one of Green's crew. "This is the worst month yet."

On Friday, with another round of frigid weather, Copeland and Tyrone Rogers exchanged turns at a 90-pound jackhammer they used to break the asphalt open at Egges Lane. Within an hour, a backhoe operator had peeled back the pavement and had carved a 3-foot-deep hole that instantly began to fill with water.

Resident Deborah Treuth had called the city to report the leak along Egges Lane four days before. She said water had been slowly bubbling up from the street before she realized it was a leak. The water left a trail of ice that spread across her driveway.

"I've been seeing leaks all over town," Treuth said. "The city probably needs to do the whole system over again."

For now, the city has to settle for a piecemeal approach. Higher priority has been given to upgrading the waste-water system. The city plans to spend $900 million during the next 14 years to upgrade that system, Winfield said.

So workers in the field are applying steel-plated Band-Aids to the city's drinking water system. As the afternoon sky faded into another cold dusk, Copeland stood knee-deep in muddy water that was quickly filling the hole.

Somewhere beneath, inches away, Copeland was going to find a pipe. He shoveled at the sides of the hole as a pump spat excess water onto the street.

That's when Rogers shoved a metal rod into the water. He attached a hollow piece of plastic to one end and leaned his ear on it.

"We call it an aquaphone," Rogers said. "It will tell you exactly where the break is by the sound of the gushing." Once they had determined that they were beside the water main - not the gas pipe - Green and Edward Woolfolk, who have worked together for more than a decade, shut the valves on both ends of the street.

"This is the worst I've seen it in a long while yet," Woolfolk said of his schedule.

With sunset fast approaching and the pipe still not fixed, Green had one last resort to keep his crew warm while they worked outside. He had pointed to the scrap wood in the back of his pickup truck and a steel drum trash can in the crew's water maintenance truck.

"Last night was a night that really tested us," Green said. "We're not allowed to make an open fire in the city, but we can do it in the county."

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