By Tova Fruchtman
While Sandy Springs residents wondered if they should boil their water, government officials from Sandy Springs and the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management were hard at work to respond to the series of problems they faced after a hole was accidentally drilled in a water main off Georgia 400, north of Sandy Springs.
Janet Ward, the public relations specialist at the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management said she has never seen a series of events like what occurred over the weekend, starting with the water main break at around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday.
The break was unpreventable, Ward said. “This is not an old main,” she said. “There was somebody working in the area who just drilled a hole right through it.”
After Atlanta Watershed Management found out about the break they sent crews out there to explore the damage.
The 48-inch main, which is in a gully in a forested area, could not be reached with the equipment needed to do the repairs without cutting down some trees, Ward explained, and sunset was approaching. So, the repair had to be delayed until the next morning when a path to the main could be cleared with day light.
Water services were to remain intact throughout until the repairs were scheduled to begin, and residents in the affected areas were told through media outlets and reverse 911 calls to reserve water in bathtubs and containers or buy bottled water to last them through the repair.
After a short delay in the water shut off – at the request of area restaurant owners – water was turned off at 9 p.m. on Friday to begin repairs on the main. By mid-afternoon on Saturday the leak was repaired, Ward said, but then, Atlanta Watershed Management spotted another problem.
A valve was closed and water was not getting to an area past the just-repaired main. “It was locked shut,” Ward said. “That happens sometimes when valves get old.”
While they knew which valve was locked shut underground, finding the spot above ground was a challenge. With development thriving throughout the Atlanta area, Ward said, often valves get paved over.
“That’s actually something that cities all over the country are struggling with right now,” she said. “The incredible growth in urban areas has made a lot of city’s maps obsolete.” Such is the case with many of the maps Atlanta water has, Ward said.
In fact, updating the maps is a goal for the Commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management Robert Hunter, she said. But the processes will cost millions of dollars and with a $3.2 billion Clean Water Atlanta capital improvement program going on, the updating will have to wait.
Without updated maps, however, the process of locating the locked valve took even longer. When they finally located it, they had to shut the valve just upstream to do the work. Then they had to dig 10 to 12 feet to repair the broken valve.
Working until about 8 p.m. on Sunday night the crews finally determined they would have to get a specialist to the valve first thing Monday morning because they could not open the valve themselves. Everyone left, except for one crew.
The boil water advisory remained in effect through Tuesday as a safety precaution while Atlanta Watershed Management tested for contamination. By 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, the advisory was over.
It took cooperation between the City of Atlanta and Sandy Springs to make the repair successful, officials said. As the Sandy Springs government worked to provide up-to-date information to residents, they also kept in close contact with Fulton County Emergency Operations personnel and the City of Atlanta along with area hospitals.
“Communications ranged from several conference calls with all parties represented to face-to-face meetings,” Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough said.
Ward remembers Sandy Springs Public Works Manager Angelia Parham spending her weekend at the worksite as they repaired the main and then the valve.
“We had Sandy Springs folks on site a lot. They were helping with their website and with outreach to the public,” Ward said. “They are in the community so they know how to get the world out.”
And McDonough said the city will continue to work with the City of Atlanta and Fulton County to improve the system with which they respond to water outages.
“The city serves as an advocate for our citizens when they have issues that they are unable to resolve directly with Atlanta Water,” he said.
But Commissioner Hunter hopes those same citizens can appreciate the work that goes into providing that water.
“Our focus over the weekend was on one thing: providing service to our customers,” Hunter said.
Katie Fallon contributed to this report.