Water main solutions remain elusive

By Karl Terry, PNT Managing Editor

Fallout from a break in a 24-inch water main brought Portales city councilors together in a special meeting Thursday to discuss the problem.

The break, which was discovered around 7 a.m. Monday, disrupted water service until early Tuesday, including a complete shutdown of the system that lasted nearly 12 hours. It was the third time in two years that has happened in the same area on the west side of the city.

Councilors approved a resolution Thursday declaring an emergency situation because of the problem, allowing City Manager Debi Lee and her staff to proceed with securing funding from federal and state sources to try and solve the problem.

Public works director Tom Howell told councilors that city officials believe there are three possible reasons for the breaks. He said the line, which was installed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, was not bedded in sand and in many areas is in direct contact with caliche rock. He said the fact that the portion of the line that has experienced the problems is near the railroad bed could also be a contributing factor.

The other possible cause is that water demand created by pumps at plants in the industrial park may be causing the line to be jolted when that demand suddenly increases or decreases.

“I just think the surges have more to do with it than the rail line,” Councilor Ron Jackson said. “I just don’t think we have that much rail traffic.”

Dan Boivin, of Smith Engineering in Albuquerque, who mapped the city’s water system following the previous breaks and made recommendations for solutions, agreed that pressure from the industrial park likely is the culprit.

“Even laying on the caliche like it is, that line shouldn’t be breaking,” Boivin said. “It’s getting some pressure put on it.”

Boivin recommended the city install a loop system with an 8- or 12-inch line and to install more shutoff valves so that breaks can be better isolated. The estimated cost would be $2 million, according to city officials.

Councilor Jake Lopez said he was unclear as to why more valves hadn’t already been put in on the line. He noted that council had approved doing last summer.

“I was told we’ve been working on it,” Lopez said. “If it takes borrowing the money to fix something like this, we need to do it.”

Howell explained that more valves haven’t been installed because it will require shutting water off each time one is installed. New technology to install the valves without shutting off the water that he thought would be available last year is still not available from the manufacturer.

“Every time we put one of those valves in, we would be looking at cutting the water off for 24 hours,” Howell said. “After the uproar, I didn’t think that was an acceptable solution.”

Older technology available to isolate the location where a valve is being put in will cost approximately $45,000 per application, according to Howell.

Councilor Gary Watkins and Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr. both commented that the solutions offered did nothing to directly fix the line that is failing.
“What I want is not to be totally dependent on that 24-inch line for service to the community,” Ortega said.

Boivin recommended that after the other measures are complete that the city install some pressure gauges in the industrial park and do some detective work to find out exactly what is happening with the pressure in the lines.

Boivin and Lee said the work proposed would take at least four months in hurry-up mode. It could be longer depending on bidding procedures and environmental study requirements.