Originally created 07/09/98

Officials reinstate water ban



Augusta's water problems worsened today when a downtown water main broke, causing city officials to impose a total ban on all outdoor watering in areas north of Gordon Highway.

The ban, announced at about 11 a.m., affects all residents and businesses, including car washes, said Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks. Officials imposed the ban after a water main at 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard broke at about 2 a.m., he said.

The break caused a two-foot drop in water levels in the city water system's "clear wells" -- wells that store treated water ready for use, Mr. Hicks said.

Mr. Hicks said he did not know whether the break was a pressure break -- caused when water pressures in a pipe rise too much, causing it to break -- or if it was a settlement break, in which water settles in a pipe, causing it to snap under the water's weight.

Antiquated and dilapidated equipment also contributed to the break, some city officials said.

"We knew when all this started that different places would start to go bad," said Commissioner J.B. Powell, who heads the city's engineering services committee, which has been working with the water department during the month-long crisis. "Martin Luther King and 15th Street was one of those places.

"It's like an old car, we're just trying to keep it running and it keeps breaking down on us. Water pipes break for different reasons, and we're not sure what the exact cause of this one was. But it all goes back to the antique, dilapidated equipment we have."

Even as city water crews worked to repair the downtown main, other workers tried to reopen a 42-inch water main that would bring more water into the city's twin reservoirs. Water officials closed the main in 1996 after it broke four times, but decided to try reopening the line after this summer's water crisis.

Specialists from Opakana, a New Jersey firm that inspects water systems, worked with city crews Thursday today to determine whether the line is safe for use, Mr. Hicks said. Officials will meet this afternoon to decide whether to reopen the line, he said.

"I mean we're doing everything we can," Mr. Hicks said, juggling a cellular phone and a two-way radio to keep in touch with water crews throughout the city. "Things are fluid. We're moving.

"We need to be safe, but we need to act with as much haste as we can."

If the line reopens, it will bring 10 million gallons per day into the city's reservoirs, Mr. Hicks said. That amount would be enough for officials to lift the total watering ban, and also allow the reservoirs to begin to refill, he said.

The reservoirs, off Highland Avenue, would be full in about two weeks, Mr. Hicks said. The reservoirs normally are filled to 29 feet, but were at 17.8 feet and 14.4 feet Wednesday, utilities officials said.

City officials already have plans to work to remedy the city's water problems after the current crisis is over, Mayor Larry Sconyers said, pointing to a planned 60-inch water line to connect the Augusta Canal to the filter plant off Highland Avenue.

"Things are already in progress," Mr. Sconyers said. "If we need to fast-track it, we'll fast-track it."

Although many Augustans couldn't water their lawns because of Thursday's main break, other residents and businesses near the broken main had no water at all.

Larry Frakes, owner of The Wet Spot, a self-service car wash at 15th Street and Wooten Road, watched as workers fixed the pipe just a few yards from his parking lot. The break forced city workers to shut off water to his car wash during repairs, and the ban has put him out of business until further notice.

"I'm shut down," said Mr. Frakes. "This is as bad as it gets."

People had been driving their cars into the bays of the car wash and putting quarters into the machine, Mr. Frakes said.

"I've had a lot of customers this morning and they don't understand why there's no water. I just point over there," he said, pointing to the work being done to fix the water pipe.

For Mr. Frakes, who owns another car wash at the corner of Tobacco and Morgan Roads, the car wash business is his whole livelihood.

"All I do is car washes," he said. "Without water it's going to be rough."

Ola Mae Andrews, a resident of Wooten Road for 30 years, was unable to take a bath, flush the toilet or cook for her family Thursday morning because she had no water while the pipe was being repaired.

"It really upset me," said Mrs. Andrews. "It really bothers you when you wake up and you've got nothing to work with."

When water began to flow out of her kitchen sink faucet, she shouted "Praise the Lord."

"I'm going to take me a good soaking now," she said.

-- Staff Writers Kevin Bonsor, Tracie Powell and Brandon Haddock contributed to this report.