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Water main ruptures are increasingly common

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:26 AM
TAMPA -

City water managers on Monday lifted the weekend boil-water order for customers north of Fowler Avenue, three days after a ruptured water main left thousands of New Tampa homes and businesses dry.

Friday's line break was the latest public failure of Tampa's aging water system.

A year ago, city residents from Beach Park to New Tampa were enraged by eye-popping high water bills the city initially attributed to excessive lawn watering.

In 2006, a water main break beneath the Hillsborough River dumped 100,000 gallons of drinking water into the river for three days.

In 2002, a water main break near Tampa International Airport turned Memorial Highway into a river for an afternoon.

Such utility collapses are becoming increasingly common across the country as aging water lines and other systems reach the end of their lives, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The problem coincides with the aftermath of the recession, when falling tax rolls and strained government budgets make it hard for cities such as Tampa to afford the high cost of replacing critical infrastructure, said Greg diLoreto, the society's president-elect.

"It's more universal than we think," said diLoreto, who runs a water utility near Portland, Ore.

In recent years, the society has given the nation's utilities, roads, bridges and levees borderline-failing grades as they grow more overwhelmed by demands placed upon them. Like the New Tampa line, much of that failing infrastructure dates to the 1970s or earlier.

"The stuff we put in in the '70s we thought would hold up for a long time," diLoreto said.

Under Mayor Pam Iorio, Tampa began a $100 million project to update its aging water and sewer systems. That project led to crews tearing up city streets downtown and elsewhere to install new pipes. The city has replaced 88 miles of water mains.

City crews have been adding new water lines parallel to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard as part of the widening of New Tampa's main traffic artery. The new water line replaces the 40-year-old one that ruptured Friday.

Brad Baird, head of the city's water department, said Friday the city was two weeks away from replacing the ruptured segment when it failed.

The failure affected about a half-million people from Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida north to the Pasco County line. Tampa Water department spokesman Eli Franco said the city had targeted the Bruce B. Downs line for replacement because of its age and a lack of alternatives.

After the blowout, crews accelerated the schedule, doing in about a half-day what was supposed to take two weeks.

"In this particular case, we were very fortunate that the lion's share of the work was in place," Franco said.

The speed with which the city restored water service in New Tampa helped keep the outage from becoming a fiasco on the scale of last year's billing problems, which led Mayor Bob Buckhorn to expand the city's meter-reading staff.

Tampa Palms resident Randy Marlowe said his initial reaction to the line break was exasperation. But later he reconsidered that response.

"Once you realize the size of the line and the number of people affected, I'm quite impressed," Marlowe said. "The restoration was much faster than expected."


kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7871

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