Water line breaks in Newcastle spike

By: 
Alexis Barker

Photo by Alexis Barker/NLJ

Roughly 100,000 gallons spewed from beneath 7th Avenue after a water main break on Wednesday of last week. City crews quickly responded to the scene to address the third line break under the street this year. 

Alexis Barker

NLJ News Editor

 

Water line breaks in the city are up significantly, according to Greg Stumpff, Newcastle’s public works supervisor. Stumpff reported that the city has had 24 water line breaks this year, compared with the six to eight that have occurred, on average, in any other year. The number of breaks in 2019 is the highest within city limits since city crews began recording break occurrences in 2000. 

The most recent break occurred on Oct. 23 at the bottom near both residences and businesses of Seventh Avenue resulting in street closure for several hours while crews responded to the initial leak, according to both Stumpff and Mike Moore, the city’s engineer. This was the third break on the same water line this year, resulting in an estimated 100 thousand gallons of water lost in about an hour, they said. 

“One hundred thousand gallons is a fair estimate,” Moore said. 

The line was a 6-inch transit water line of aging infrastructure, which is on the smaller size as far as water lines go, Stumpff said. 

According to Moore, the age of that water line and others that have experienced breaks in the past year are contributing factors. Moore attributes some of the issues, however, to “operational” problems. 

“This break was more the result of operational error, but if it had been newer PVC pipe I wouldn’t expect it to break like it did,” Moore said. “We were flushing out the system on that end of the water system, and during that process, we are putting more water through the system than normal. That may have contributed to the break; there was too much water pressure.” 

The water lines in the city are well beyond their life expectancy, Moore said, which  creates “old and brittle” lines that break easier because they don’t have the resilience. 

“The pipes are showing their age, and we have to be more careful to prevent this from happening,” Moore said. 

Moore said that a city usually hopes to get at least 50 years out of water lines and that the lines in Newcastle have met and surpassed that age by at least 10 years. 

“In our case, we are asking those lines to last longer than the design life. They can provide extra time, but that catches up with these lines eventually,” Moore said. 

Their age means that the older lines are wearing out, Moore said.

“What we are seeing is lines start to, specifically the asbestos-cement (transit lines), begin to wear out,” he said. “This material was popular in the 1950s before PVC became more dependable. These lines egg out and become brittle by nature and start to crack.” 

Moore said that the pipes are cracking before coming apart in worn-out areas. 

“This is a tough conundrum for the city because we have this type of pipe throughout town,” Moore said. “They are difficult to go in and replace, but the city tries to do what we can.” 

Previously, the city has paired water line replacement with road repairs, figuring that anytime a street is repaired, the water lines will be addressed before replacing the street so that the city does not have to go back in. Financially, though, replacing both the street and water lines is quite costly, Moore said, and the city cannot afford to do them all at once. 

Moore previously reported that the city spends anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 replacing lines and repairing a street, depending on the scope of the project. 

The city can apply for grants and loans through the state to repair the water lines, and Moore said that the city most recently applied for a mineral royalty grant to repair the water line under Boyd Avenue, as well as the road. 

“We are getting the money to fund that line. We consider that to be one of our priorities because it is in a commercial area and supplies both the hospital and the new hotel. We would like to see that line replaced before it fails,” Moore said. 

After the most recent water line issues, Moore said, the west side of town in general has moved higher up the priority list. 

“That whole side would be the first area we tackled if we had our preference. We would replace that pipe on the whole west side of town,” Moore said. 

Money to fix the lines will likely come with a rate increase for city residents to help cover the cost of the projects, Moore said. A 18% rate increase was approved earlier this year. 

Moore said that he hopes to develop a plan to start tackling water issues so “we don’t get too far behind.” 

For the time being, the city will continue to be reactive and address water line issues as they occur. 

According to Stumpff, the repair has been made on Seventh Avenue, costing the city at least $1,000 in supplies and six hours of work for four employees. But, he said, significant rehabilitation still needs to be done in the area once summer comes. 

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