Drought Brings Challenges To City Water Departments

By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | May 2012, Vol. 67 No. 5

Overall, Houston residents seem to accept service interruptions and appreciate the task facing the utility department.

“Houstonians have come to accept the fact that during periods of drought, water line breaks increase,” Wright said. “The department has significant institutional knowledge and technical expertise to manage these types of events. The media was engaged as a partner and facts about the event were disseminated in a timely manner on radio, television and on the internet.”

Four-hundred-fifty miles north in Oklahoma City, Utilities Director Marsha Slaughter said utility employees will remember July and August 2011 as a time of record low lake levels, low water pressure complaints, the high number of main breaks and other water delivery problems.

While the drought contributed to 2011’s water line breaks, Slaughter said other contributing factors include corrosion caused by the soil and higher-than-normal pressures.

“We have various types of soil in Oklahoma City,” said Slaughter, “however the majority is characterized from clay to a clay loam. High temperatures and lack of rain caused the ground to dry, crack and shift. About the time this becomes the norm and main breaks subside, the weather may change. An abundant rain can also change the soil conditions and the pipes react. It’s the same problem we experience with freezing temperatures and ice.”

As temperatures climbed in the summer of 2011, so did demand for water.

“On July 30, 2011, water demand had reached a new high of 202.2 million gallons a day,” she continued. “The previous one-day record of 189.8 million gallons was topped eight times in two months, and water line breaks increased dramatically as treatment plants increased delivery pressure.”

Lower-priority leaks waited while line maintenance crews repaired Code 1 breaks that were losing large volumes of water or causing property damage.

“In July and August, line maintenance crews repaired 1,794 leaks, a number typically repaired in a year,” Slaughter said. “The division adjusted its operations to include mandatory overtime, 12- to 16-hour shifts, rescheduling crews to 24-hour operations and deploying wastewater crews to water.”

Slaughter praised personnel for faithfully serving the city’s customers with their usual courtesy and professionalism, despite unprecedented weather-related issues.

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