By Karl Terry
Portales residents went without showers and flushes for nearly 24 hours on Saturday due to a major water-main break.
Water remained off throughout the city until 9 p.m., but officials said they expected it would be flowing again from residential taps before midnight.
City officials said a 24-inch major distribution line broke on the west side of Portales just after midnight on Saturday. The problem became apparent when water began to fountain out of the ground near Taco Box between University and Avenue O on West First Street.
The break flooded streets with about 5 million gallons of water before the flow was stemmed, officials said. At one point during the early-morning hours, it was feared houses along Avenue I would be flooded and crews began sandbagging those in danger.
With temperatures in the teens, slick icy streets were also a hazard and sand trucks had to be called out to sand streets.
City Manager Debi Lee said she was alerted by water department employee Skip Wilson at 1:30 a.m. that there was a major water-line break.
“They could see water gushing from the ground behind Taco Box,” Lee said. “We did everything as quickly and as best we could. It was a major impact.”
Lee said she went to her office and found maps, but once they checked the maps they realized there were no shut-offs on that portion of the line.
“We usually have shut-offs periodically along the lines so a break can be isolated,” Lee said. “But this portion of the line is 20 years old and there weren’t any.”
The lack of a way to isolate that section from the rest of the system necessitated shutting the water off at the city tanks. That meant the entire city was without water. Lee said there were no other options.
“At one point we were losing three feet every 20 minutes in our tanks,” Lee said.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Lee said crews had a new pipe cut to length and crews were working to fit and couple it into the line. Roosevelt County Water Coop dispatched a truck to Roswell to retrieve the pipe to make the repair while the city crews concentrated on pumping.
Lee said the type of break was not common and the water department was not able to determine a cause for the break.
City officials did say Yucca Telecom was not responsible for the break.
“There’s a lot of speculation running around but the facts are it’s not the fiber optic people who caused this,” Lee said. “They had nothing to do with it, they weren’t even digging in the area.”
Cecille Archibeque of Yucca Telecom, who has contract crews from MP NexLevel working to install fiber optic lines around the city, confirmed their crews were not working in the area.
She said all their work so far has been on the east side of town. She said MP NexLevel helped city workers by supplying pumping equipment and other assistance.
“They were not working today (Saturday) or (Friday) night,” Archibeque said. “It’s all on the east side anyway.”
MP NexLevel crews broke a line Wednesday on the east side of town that interrupted water service to a 10-square-block area that included the high school for an afternoon.
People around Portales were pitching in and finding ways to cope with the water shortage. Kids from the Baptist Childrens Home took water over to Heartland Continuing Care Center and worked to keep the nursing home’s toilet tanks full so residents would be able to flush.
Some restaurants were open for awhile using bottled water for their coffee makers, but eventually all restaurants were ordered closed by the New Mexico Health Department. Lee said Police Chief Jeffrey Gill got a call from the Health Department, advising restaurants that they should close because of sanitation concerns.
Lee said city officials had tankers and fire departments from other communities on standby in case of structure fires in the city. She said they also had someone on standby to truck drinking water into the community if that became necessary.
An unidentified Wal-Mart service desk clerk said the place had been a madhouse: “We’re selling water like crazy.”
She said they had run out once and gone and brought more in but that was gone Saturday night and more was not expected until Monday.