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Charlotte Observer (NC) (c) Copyright 2002, The Charlotte Observer. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, August 18, 2002


Water pipes break as ground dries Rock Hill is losing resource to leaks
Staff Writer

With the drought hardening the earth like a good fall frost, underground pipes are cracking and spewing water at about double the usual rate, city officials said.

Water is leaking by the gallon even as leaders tell residents to turn off their taps.

Concerned, the city has bumped up the number of workers assigned to fix line breaks -- hiring contractors to help city employees and authorizing overtime.

They still can't keep up. The backlog of leaks has risen to roughly 40 to 50, Assistant Utilities Director Jimmy Bagley said last week.

We've dedicated all our water staff to work on our water leaks," he said. "It's hard to catch up."

When it hasn't rained, the soil dries up and contracts, causing the ground to shift. The earth then puts pressure on the pipes until they break, he said.

"When you have moisture, the soil tends to be more forgiving," he said.

There are other stressors as well. In the sweltering sun, water heats while sitting in elevated storage tanks and then runs through metal pipes whose temperature is lower.

Residents who've been asked to reduce their water use by 10 to 15 percent are lighting up the city's phones to report water trickling down their streets or bubbling out of the ground.

The city has been under mandatory water restrictions since July 31.

Workers, however, have had to prioritize the complaints based on how bad the leak is, Bagley said.

It's typical for workers to respond to about 15 or 20 leaks a week this time of year, he said. About twice that amount are being reported weekly now.

Most have been small breaks. The largest pipe to crack was 6 inches in diameter, he said.

The city doesn't measure how much water is being lost, but Utilities Director Nick Stegall estimated 15 percent of the water carried by the city's system goes unaccounted for each year.

City Council member Maxine Gill has complained about the losses for years, urging that more money be dedicated to improving the utility infrastructure.

"We're just going to have to appropriate more money," she said. "I've been after it for years and years."

This year's budget includes a few hundred thousand dollars more to repair leaks or replace pipes, she said.

"It's just that we've got an old system," she said. "We've got sewers that are almost a hundred years old."

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