The city of Dayton had 124 water main breaks last year, but the one on Feb. 13 proved unprecedented.
A 36-inch water main broke in the middle of the Great Miami River near the Keowee Street Bridge, ultimately spilling about 150 million gallons of drinking water. A countywide boil advisory affected 400,000 people for more than 40 hours. Schools and businesses closed.
A year later, Dayton leaders revealed details for the first time to the Dayton Daily News about how it found and fixed that massive leak. They also discussed what steps the city has taken since then to minimize the likelihood of a similar emergency and the overall condition of its water system.
The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Next Sunday, we will examine the condition of Montgomery County’s distribution system, which buys water from the city.
City of Dayton Water Director Michael Powell can’t say a major break would never happen again.
“But the whole idea is to minimize the impact,” he said.
That includes installing more valves to isolate parts of the system and an ongoing program to spend $17 million annually to upgrade its aging water system and an average of nearly $23 million per year on sewer infrastructure. Those amounts, particularly the sewer funding, fluctuate, depending on the economy and other projects.
Water main breaks common
Water main breaks have become common, particularly in the winter, because of aging infrastructure, corrosive soil and other issues, area experts say.
Dayton has nearly 2,000 miles of water, sewer and storm water pipes.
So when a break was detected last February, the city’s water department took the standard approach to repair it as soon as possible and minimize the number of people affected.
However, they soon realized that it was not an ordinary break — the city was losing water at a rapid rate. So they put the city’s emergency plan into action.
They stood up an emergency operations center, gathered various department heads and city leaders, and called in additional crews to locate the break because the leak wasn’t visible. It was all hands on deck, Powell said.
“We continued to look at the (water) storage levels to see how quickly things were changing, to help us identify the size of the breakdown that could be occurring,” he said.
The city’s 24-hour dispatch center was getting hundreds of calls from customers, and that proved to be helpful as crews searched for the source. They categorized the calls based on location to determine which customers had service.
As they gathered data, crews in the field were notified, and they used the information to check various water mains throughout the system.
“(The break) happened at one of the worst possible times. It was raining, the river was at flood stage,” Powell said. “So with the river also moving very quickly at flood stage, it was murky. So one of the things we figured is that with the amount of water we’re talking about, there would have been a report or multiple reports about, ‘Hey, a tree is gone,’ or ‘Something has disappeared,’ because of this amount of water washing away. So it had to be somewhere in or along the river.”
So crews shifted their search efforts to along the Great Miami River. It was like finding a needle in a haystack to find leaking water in a flooding river, Powell said.
The city then ramped up production at one of its two water treatment plants, pumping more water than normal into the system. The hope was that the additional water going into the system would create a disturbance in the river, pinpointing the location of the break.
By 1:30 a.m. Feb. 14, crews identified the breaking point. They then isolated and shut off the line. A boil advisory that had been issued shortly after the water main break was lifted about 1:30 p.m. Feb. 15.
The broken line was fully repaired several months later, costing the city more than $860,000.
Massive water loss
The water main that broke was a 28-year-old pipe made of concrete — relatively new for the city.
The city suffered a massive loss of treated water, more than four times the daily distribution amount — starting with approximately 2.5 million gallons in 10 minutes, Dayton City Manager Shelly Dickstein said at the time. In all, about 150 million gallons of drinking water was lost.
The city of Dayton water is distributed to about 400,000 people, including about 250,000 people in Montgomery County.
It’s not clear how many businesses shut down or the amount of money they lost as a result.
“Water is one of the region’s greatest economic assets, and whenever there’s a disruption, it impacts businesses and impedes production,” Christopher E. Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Dayton officials allege Sidney-based Eagle Bridge Co., which Montgomery County hired to replace the Keowee Bridge, is responsible for breaking the water main. City lawyers sent a demand letter to Eagle Bridge and its insurance company last June, seeking damages of $1.5 million in lost water, emergency response and increased utility costs.
Thomas Frantz, Eagle Bridge’s vice president, told the Dayton Daily News in July that his company wasn’t responsible for the damages, saying, “we didn’t do any work on that water line at all.”
Powell and other city officials declined to discuss the status of the claim, saying the insurance company is reviewing it. Frantz could not be reached for comment last week.
In the year after the water main break, Powell said the city has worked with its regional partners and its water staff to minimize such incidents in the future.
One of the first steps was to incorporate the incident in to a joint emergency exercise that’s held annually with Montgomery County, which purchases water from the city.
Dayton crews also installed additional erosion control methods.
In addition, the city reviewed how it works with contractors and agencies such as the Miami Conservancy District, which controls the region’s rivers. The city staff put in place additional procedures for when any construction work is done near utilities to make sure all necessary agencies and personnel are notified and doing a better job of monitoring the work.
The city also added additional valves to parts of the water system so it can isolate areas more quickly after a break, Powell said.
“There were some of our customers that didn’t have any disruption of service,” he said. “But for those customers where service was disrupted, it was not something that anyone would plan. We want to keep in mind (that) disruptions will happen, for whatever reason, things happen. But what we do about those things when they happen, to minimize the length of disruption, is what we’re after.”
The city and county followed appropriate procedures and notified the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency of the loss of water pressure caused by the break, spokeswoman Dina Pierce said. They kept Ohio EPA informed of their progress until the water main break was located, isolated and water pressure was restored, she said.
Capital improvement plan
Water main breaks are inevitable, particularly given the age of the infrastructure, said researchers at Central State University’s C.J. McLin International Center for Water Resource Management. But age isn’t the only factor that causes pipes to break. Major temperature swings in the winter and other factors in nature contribute.
Some of the Dayton pipes that were put in place in the late 1800s are in better condition structurally than ones installed in the 1950 and ’60s, said Aaron Zonin, deputy director of Dayton’s water department.
Even so, communities must start taking steps to address aging water and sewer infrastructures, and minimize the number of water main breaks, said Subramania Sritharan and Krishnakumar V. Nedunuri, water resource management experts at Central State. Both professors and their colleagues are doing water-related research and collecting data to help Montgomery County address its aging infrastructure, including identifying trouble spots before breaks occur.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 240,000 water main breaks occur per year in the United States. It also estimates that the state of Ohio needs more than $13 billion in water infrastructure over the next 20 years.
Dayton engineers are working to detect water main breaks and other potential problems in the infrastructure before there’s an emergency, said Zonin, who is also the city’s water engineering manager. The city’s efforts seem to be paying off, he said, as the number of water main breaks have trended down slightly the past several years.
From 1998 to 2019, the city had a total of 2,719 water main breaks. The number of breaks per year peaked at 159 in 2000, according to city data. Since 2013, when the city launched its capital improvement program to address its aging infrastructure, it has averaged 122 breaks per year.
The city set a goal to make improvements to 1% of total water lines and 1% of total sewer lines annually. Since the program launched in 2013, it has met or exceeded that goal.
The city’s water department also launched an asset management plan, as required by the EPA, to help them identify which problems in the infrastructure to address first. The plan calls for water and sewer lines to be replaced or repaired based on likelihood of failure, consequences of failure and even corrosive soil conditions, Powell and Zonin said. Corrosive soil can shorten the life of pipes, causing main breaks and sewer blockages.
“(So the asset management plan) takes a look at all of those things, as well as the age, and it generates a score for each section of pipe in our system,” Powell said.
Using that system has prevented the city from unnecessarily replacing pipes simply because of age. Some cast iron pipes put in place in the 1800s are still functioning with no problems. However, city crews tend to spend more time working on pipes installed after World War II. The quality is poor, Powell said, and they are more susceptible to breaking.
Of the $17 million that will be invested into the water infrastructure, $9.5 million will go toward pipes and $5.5 million to the city’s plants, he said. Since 2013, the city has awarded $175 million in capital projects on the water and sewer system.
The program is paid for by a combination of cash and debt, Powell said. In January the Dayton city council approved raising water rates by 5% and sewer rates by 7.8% in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Storm water rates will increase 2.3% for three consecutive years. The combined impact for the average residential customer is about $12 per quarterly bill, or about $1 per week, city officials said.
“We are taking a proactive approach and trying to make sure that we do it in an intelligent way,” Powell said of the city’s plan to address the water and sewer infrastructure.
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