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Engineers warned of weak pipe

As residents and businesses do without, crews begin costly repairs and officials plan for the long term.

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

Almost six years ago, engineers for the agency that is now Tampa Bay Water said an 8-mile pipeline, one of the region's chief arteries for drinking water, was so full of cracks and weakened wires that it should be replaced.

Board members said no.

At 4 p.m. Thursday, the pipe gave way.

A 10-foot-long hole opened up on top of the 7-foot-wide concrete pipe. Wires that wrap around and strengthen the pipe broke.

"Think of a wire slinky," said Jerry Maxwell, general manager of Tampa Bay Water. "It looks like someone took a pair of wire cutters to one of those."

No one witnessed the pipe collapse and the water bubbling to the surface in a remote section of south Pasco County, and 2-million to 3-million gallons of water escaped before workers found the leak and shut off the pipe.

But the impact of the spill was immediate and dramatic. Thousands across Pinellas and Pasco counties lost all water for several hours Thursday. More than 600,000 people must still boil water. And thousands more have been asked to use as little water as possible.

Furthermore, Tampa Bay Water officials say the area could see this again.

"Experience has taught us it will happen again," said Jonathan Kennedy, director for operations and facilities at Tampa Bay Water.

Consultants will inspect the 30-year-old pipe this weekend and decide whether to recommend that it be replaced.

Kennedy thinks their recommendation will remain the same: Replace 8 miles of pipe at a cost of $15-million to $20-million.

"It's been six years since we told the board that, and that's what we're going to be dusting off and taking a hard look at,"' Kennedy said. "Do the members really want to deal with this kind of interruption?"

Interruption it was.

Restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals scrambled to supply drinking water Friday. Fast food restaurants in Clearwater and Largo closed down their soda fountains and served only canned soft drinks. Lenny's restaurant in Clearwater shut down altogether for the day.

"Do not drink the water" signs went up in the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa on St. Pete Beach. Guests were supplied bottled water and resupplied as needed.

On Sand Key, the Sheraton and Radisson resorts stopped serving tap water in the dining rooms and broke out the bottled water for guests. Ice machines were shut off, but both hotels said they had enough to get through the weekend and still serve cold drinks.

"You just don't think about how many things water affects," said Radisson spokeswoman Carol Wolff.

School district officials instructed schools to shut off water fountains and limit strenuous activities for students. At several schools, parents chipped in to buy bottled water. Hospitals in Tarpon Springs and Clearwater handed out bottled water and ordered extra ice.

Utilities officials in Pinellas and Pasco hope tests will show that water for many areas is safe to drink without boiling by late today. But residents in Seminole, Largo and parts of Clearwater, where the water loss was most severe, may have to wait until Sunday or Monday, said Pick Talley, director of Pinellas County Utilities.

By Friday morning, utilities officials had restored near-normal water pressure by pumping extra water from wellfields and delivering some water through smaller lines around the broken pipe. But they continued the call for conservation.

Workers spent most of Friday pumping water away from the broken pipe on the Bexley Ranch east of the Suncoast Parkway. They must dry out the site, dig out the pipe and remove the broken pieces. Then they will use a crane to lift in the new section of pipe, which is 20 feet long and weighs 10 tons to 15 tons.

Tampa Bay Water plans to replace not only the broken section, but also two other portions nearby where officials know the pipe has weakened. Altogether, they plan to put in 160 feet of new pipe and hope to have the line working again Tuesday. The work will cost $500,000 to $1-million, Kennedy said.

The water provider already had planned to replace four other sections of pipe along the line this summer.

It was the fifth time a break has occurred along the 17-mile Cypress Creek Transmission Line. Most of the breaks were not in the 8-mile section, made by Price Bros., but in more defective pipe made by another company. Tampa Bay Water's predecessor, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, sued and received settlements from both companies.

Tampa Bay Water board member Susan Latvala, also a Pinellas County commissioner, said she wanted to study replacing all 8 miles of pipe.

"It certainly needs to be looked at," said Latvala, who wasn't on the authority board in 1997. "It's not something we've ever discussed. But I bet it will be very shortly."

Others were dubious. Tampa Bay Water officials need more time to study the cause of the break before attributing it solely to bad pipe, Talley said. Changes in water pressure can cause pipes to rupture, and Tampa Bay Water had just finished flushing the line when the collapse occurred.

"I think it's a little premature to say that," Talley said.

Talley said he had recommended in 1997 that engineers do more analysis of the line and that defective pieces be replaced. That's the lower-cost option the authority board chose.

-- Times staff writers Andy Meacham, Jennifer Farrell, Carrie Johnson, Kelley Benham, Lorri Helfand and Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report.

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