Published August 14. 2014 9:00AM Updated August 15. 2014 3:42PM
New London — The city “avoided disaster” Thursday by containing a rupture in a main water distribution line that was leaking at a rate of 8,000 gallons a minute and threatened the water supply to both New London and Waterford.
“We were very close to a major catastrophe,” New London Public Utilities Director Joseph Lanzafame said.
Lanzafame said his crew realized overnight that water pressure was dropping in certain areas of the system but had to isolate specific parts of the transmission system to pinpoint the leak. By early Thursday morning, crews found the leak off a road that runs through Bates Woods Park, about half a mile from Chester Street.
“If it had taken us an hour or an hour and a half longer to locate the break, we would have reached a point of no return,” Lanzafame said in a prepared statement. “Residents and businesses throughout New London would have been without clean water for the next month.”
The New London Housing Authority high-rise at 202 Colman St., which serves about 150 elderly and disabled citizens, was most significantly affected by the leak. The apartment complex lost water late Wednesday evening, according to residents, and water was not restored until late Thursday afternoon.
As a precaution, residents of the high-rise were advised not to drink or cook with the water until it is tested. The rest of the city did not lose water because there is more than one main water line that feeds New London.
Had the city not isolated the leak, Lanzafame said, New London would have lost more water, and eventually, Waterford would have lost water as well.
“When we located that leak, we were actually losing about a foot (of water) an hour from our storage tanks,” he said. “It would have been a very big disaster.”
The pipe that burst is a 20-inch transmission line, likely made of cast iron and more than 50 years old, and is one of several that feed the city’s distribution system, according to Lanzafame.
On Thursday afternoon, water could be seen bubbling from underground, creating a 10-foot-by-20-foot pond that was about 3 feet deep. The water drained into a marshy area inside the park.
Because the leak occurred in a remote, swampy area and not along a roadway or in a neighborhood, it took longer for crews to find it.
“There was no washouts of roads, no destruction or damage of property,” Lanzafame said. “If it had been under a road, we would have had (those problems), but we would have been able to find it much faster.”
Lanzafame said crews will likely spend the better part of a week fixing the broken pipe.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, the leak was mostly contained as crews installed an extra shutoff valve in the line to completely halt water flow to the site of the break and blocked it with an inflatable bladder, Lanzafame said.
The cause of the leak is likely erosion and heavy rainfall, but only excavation of the pipe containing the leak can determine the official cause, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. Lanzafame said the age of the pipe likely contributed as well.
A state of emergency
Finizio declared a state of emergency in the city at 8:13 a.m. after the “massive water leak” was discovered. At the time, Finizio said the city could be without water within hours and that the problem could last for several days.
The mayor said he was notified of the water emergency at 6:34 a.m. At that time, the city was losing water at a rate of 8,000 gallons a minute, or 10 million gallons a day, he said. The city’s daily water supply is approximately 7 million gallons of water a day.
Later in the morning, Finizio said the city had activated its water reserves and tapped into Groton’s water supply as well.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy partially activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center to monitor and manage any issues that might arise as a result of the water main break. The state also shipped 1,152 MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) and 1,440 1-liter bottles of water to the city at the city’s request, according to Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the governor.
By about 7 p.m., the leak was contained, water pressure in the city had stabilized and Finizio lifted the state of emergency.
Ledge Light Health District Deputy Director of Health Stephen Mansfield said Thursday afternoon that the health district had no concerns about water quality. He said that Veolia, the water company that New London uses, continually tested the water to ensure it was potable.
Norm Leonard, a resident of the 202 Colman St. housing complex, said he noticed the loss of water around 10 p.m. Wednesday.
He said he wasn’t able to flush his toilet or do his dishes and even had to wash his dentures with soda on Thursday morning.
Rich Sadosky, who also lives in the building, said many residents woke up Thursday morning and discovered that they didn’t have any water.
“There are people who can’t come out, but then they can’t be in an apartment without water, either, otherwise that’s jeopardizing their health,” said Sadosky.
A visiting nurse who was tending to another resident in the complex handed out water bottles from a case of water she had bought.
A bus driven by Tommie Major, director of the city’s recreation department, took residents of 202 Colman St. to the Senior Center, where they could have a hot lunch, get bottles of water and use the bathrooms.
Lawrence + Memorial Hospital opened its command center Thursday morning to monitor the situation, but the hospital and its affiliates continued to run as normal through the day, according to spokesman Michael O’Farrell.
In Waterford, Millstone Power Station used water at a reduced rate Thursday but was otherwise “operating fine,” said spokesman Ken Holt. Employees were told to conserve water until New London declared the situation to be stabilized, he said.
The water originates at Lake Konomoc in Waterford, is treated at a water treatment facility and is sent through large transmission lines into the city and to Waterford. The water system serves about 50,000 customers, Lanzafame said.
Lanzafame said there is also a recent connection that was made to East Lyme’s system, but it is not currently in use.
Staff writer Greg Smith contributed to this report.