Tens of thousands without water in Baltimore County

Water main breaks in wooded area

steep slope stymies repairs

March 06, 2010|By Jill Rosen | Baltimore Sun reporter

Tens of thousands of homes and businesses along the Reisterstown Road corridor went without water for most of Saturday as crews searched for an elusive water main break that was finally discovered late in the day in the woods off of Gwynnbrook Avenue.

The outage, first reported at about 3:30 a.m., stretched for miles along heavily traveled Reisterstown Road, from the Baltimore City line through to Butler Road in Baltimore County. Homes and businesses in Randallstown and Woodlawn also lost water.

The water loss from the break was "major," said Baltimore County Fire Division Chief Michael Robinson.

City and county police officers and firefighters, as well as homeland security and emergency management officers searched for the source of the leak or break throughout the morning and into the afternoon, Robinson said, adding that it was unusual not to be able to immediately find the location. "Typically," he said, "we readily identify it and put crews into action."

Workers in helicopters flew overhead on the lookout for burbling water, while others in the 100-person response team flushed water into the system at strategic points and watched for pressure drops. Others were monitoring streams for unusual water levels.

By late afternoon, officials had located the point of the break, near Earhart Court in the Gwynnbrook neighborhood. The fracture occurred in a 36-inch pre-stressed concrete pipe that officials said was at least 50 years old.

The focus then turned to fixing the problem, which was complicated because the broken portion ran under a stream in a steep section of woods. Officials were unsure of how long the repairs would take and when water would be restored. It was not immediately clear whether the age of the pipe, its materials or the recent freeze-and-thaw cycles were the main culprit of the damage.

While some customers were expected to see water back by Sunday morning, county and city officials said those homes and businesses from Pleasant Hill Road north to Butler Road would be the last to see service restored. The leak drained two above-ground tanks containing 1.3 million gallons, and affected several other storage tanks in the area.

Joyce Madden, a senior citizen who lives on Highfalcon Road near Reisterstown, noticed her pressure drop dramatically early Saturday before her water disappeared. She had a pitcher of water in her fridge, so she wasn't worried about what to drink -- it's whether or not she could flush and shower Sunday morning.

"What about church?" she wondered. "I have to wash my face -- at least."

Robinson urged residents and businesses in the affected area to use sparingly the water they still had. Plenty of restaurants and even some car washes in the area had water and remained open Saturday, even as others nearby ran out.

"The more people using water, the more it threatens us systemwide," Robinson said. Though water pressure was alarmingly low, Robinson said the area was covered in case of a fire, with available tanks holding enough to handle a major blaze.

In Reisterstown, most of Main Street was waterless by lunchtime.

At Village Pizza, manager Sergio Capuano had turned off the soda machine, was serving pizza on paper plates and sent one of his employees out to buy bottled water. He hoped the bottled stuff would be enough to wash the dishes -- if not, he might have to close.

"It is aggravation," he said. "It's just making things hard."

At the nearby Dunkin' Donuts, where water is crucial to make the in-demand coffee, workers had filled coffee boxes with water when they noticed the pressure drop. By early afternoon, they had just four boxes left.

Annie Derzak, owner of Martha & Mary's cafe, taped a sign to the door telling customers they were closed. Missing the Saturday breakfast and lunch traffic -- to say nothing of the possibility of a Sunday brunch crowd -- really disappointed her, especially after all the business she lost during the blizzards.

"I've lost business for three of the last eight weekends and now when I could finally catch a break," she said, "there's no water."

City and county officials were asking residents in the affected area to refrain from showering and bathing and washing clothes and dishes until water pressure returns.

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