Originally created 07/12/98

Water woes to persist



Another day, another delay.

For the third day, Augusta utility workers worked Saturday to reopen a water line that officials said is critical to solving the city's water crisis.

"I don't know if we're going to be able to get water through the line and into the reservoirs tonight or not," Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks said Saturday night. "Until we know what we can do here, we can't recommend any changes in any watering."

Officials didn't know Saturday night exactly when the restrictions would be eased or lifted.

They had hoped to reopen the line -- a 42-inch water main closed in 1996 due to repeated breaks -- as early as Thursday, but found they had to replace a section of the pipe under Berckmans Road late that night.

On Friday, workers went to inspect a second section of the pipe, only to find it was under a Margate Drive family's backyard gazebo and swimming pool.

That delay pushed the pipe's opening until at least late Saturday night. Workers toiled past sunset to fix a valve in the Indian Cove area that blew off as they refilled the line, Mr. Hicks said.

They also discovered a leak in the line off Riverlook Drive, near the pumping station which sends water from Augusta Canal to the city's reservoirs off Highland Avenue.

"We thought we'd have it by now, but things keep happening that we've got to take care of," Mr. Hicks said. "We have to get it all tight."

If the four-mile pipe -- which links Augusta Canal with city reservoirs -- is deemed safe for use, it would bring an additional 10 million gallons to the city's twin reservoirs. The reservoirs have run low since a May 22 equipment failure in the city's water system.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, the reservoirs, which are considered full at 29 feet, were measured at 12 feet, 7 inches and 14 feet, 5 inches, according to utility officials.

If the line can be used today, officials plan to lift a total ban on outdoor water use for areas north of Gordon Highway and to ease the softer, "odd-even" restrictions in place for areas south of the highway, Mr. Oliver said.

Under the planned restrictions, all Augusta residents and businesses with odd-numbered addresses would be allowed to water at any time during odd-numbered days.

Augustans with even-numbered addresses would be able to water on even-numbered days, Mr. Oliver said.

Under some previous odd-even restrictions, residents could water only during certain nighttime hours, usually from 9-11 p.m. Under the planned changes, officials still would ask residents to limit watering to two hours on their allowed days, Mr. Oliver said.

Mr. Oliver made the announcement during an afternoon town meeting at Gracewood Community Center off Tobacco Road.

About 80 residents attended the two-hour meeting, many of whom criticized the city's handling of water problems. Some residents said officials mismanaged the water system and were unresponsive to citizens' needs during the ensuing crisis.

"We all know that Augusta does not have a water crisis," said Natalie Drive resident Tom Zwemer. "It has a water-distribution crisis. We are not faced with an act of God. We are faced with 10 years of inaction by city governments past and present."

Augustans should push for a referendum that would stipulate that the tax assessor's office lower the appraised value of a home by $1,000 for every water ban longer than 72 hours, with additional $200 reductions for every 24 hours after that, Mr. Zwemer said.

Aaron McPhee, president of the United Paperworkers International Union Local 1803 at International Paper Co., said the union had offered mechanical assistance five times during the crisis, but was unable to reach Mr. Hicks, Mr. Oliver or "anyone with any authority."

Mr. Oliver said he didn't receive messages left by union officials, but said he would have considered accepting the union's help.

"I'm willing to accept suggestions and comments from anyone," Mr. Oliver said. "What you have to be careful of is you have a team of people assembled to do a job, and if you bring new people when the job is half-done, it could get very confusing."

Some south Augusta residents said the city had restricted their water use unfairly in order to treat all citizens equally.

They said a well system built by the former Richmond County government -- and later tied into the city system after Augusta and county governments were combined in 1996 -- would provide enough water for south Augusta residents to avoid a total water ban imposed earlier by city officials.

Augusta Commissioner Moses Todd, who organized Saturday's meeting, said he agreed with residents who believe south Augustans should not have faced a total ban.

"I'm convinced they were trying to treat everybody the same and impose an unfair mandated ban on folks south of the Gordon Highway," Mr. Todd said. "If I'm not being sacrilegious, I'd like to say to the Pharaoh, `Let my people go."'

Although parts of south Augusta didn't need a total ban on outdoor watering, other areas did, Mr. Oliver said.

It would have been difficult to communicate only with residents living in areas that could weather the water crisis, he said.

Mr. Todd said he accomplished the goals he set for the town meeting. He sought to tell citizens why he thought south Augustans were treated unfairly, and also why the crisis occurred and what officials are doing to handle it.

"I also think that this meeting put some pressures on our (utilities) director and leadership to do something," Mr. Todd said, suggesting again that Mr. Hicks should resign if the 42-inch water line failed to resolve the crisis.

Mr. Hicks has said he will not comment about Mr. Todd's statement.