Lost: 500,000 gallons of water (and rising)

As many environmentally- and cost-conscious consumers aim to reduce their water usage by ensuring their toilets, faucets and pipes don’t leak, Frankford officials are looking to plug a leak of an altogether different scale.

Tidewater’s Clarence Quillen reported at the Frankford Town Council’s Jan. 5 meeting that the town’s water usage for December alone had increased by about a half-million gallons, increasing not only the amount of water flowing through the system but also how much the town is paying for the chemicals used to treat its water and the wear and tear on town water systems. And the real concern is that no one knows where most or all of that additional water went.

With all three of the schools located inside town limits closed for the winter break, water usage might have been less than usual. Instead, it’s been significantly higher. And increased tolls on the town’s individual water meters aren’t revealing the culprit, either.

Quillen said that, based on the rate of loss – about 75 to 80 gallons per minute, non-stop, he said – his theory is that there is a broken water pipe somewhere in the system, likely a 1.5- to 2-inch line that has been completely severed, or possibly a smaller, but significant, leak in a 6- or 8-inch line. But there has been no related report of water ponding in the town’s drainage swales, in people’s yards or even inside their homes.

“There’s a leak somewhere, but we’re not sure where,” said Quillen.

Frankford maintenance supervisor Jim Reardon said the mystery has sent him searching throughout the town since the problem first became apparent on Dec. 22. He’s been looking for telltale puddles or sheets of frozen water, checking water meters and peering into vacant homes, just in case they had become inundated without it becoming apparent from the street.

That’s in addition to dealing with known major leaks at two businesses and a church between Dec. 22 and 24 alone, due to December’s frigid weather.

One of those leaks – a break in a 2-inch pipe – did significant damage to the new dining hall at Antioch African Methodist Episcopal Church, which will have to be gutted as a result, Reardon said. Another involved the sprinkler system at the town’s Mountaire facility that was quickly contained and repaired, and a third struck Coffin Builders, which also sustained significant damage after 36,000 gallons leaked there.

Town officials said they were relatively sure the leak wasn’t in the vicinity of any roads, since the volume of water likely would have caused a nearby road to collapse under the weight of heavy trucks that frequent the town. They said they’ve also confirmed that the leak isn’t at any of the schools, though they were unoccupied for several weeks.

Fire department alerted to water shortage

The volume of water lost between the apparent leak and the known ones hasn’t just cost Frankford money in water treatment chemicals and time spent on repairs and investigation. It also has the potential to put the town at risk in the case of a major fire, since the lost water has to be replenished in their water storage system over time.

Quillen said the natural replenishment rate of the storage tank has only barely kept up with the rate of regular use and the mysterious leak.

“I thought you all were going to run out of water,” Quillen said of one point when the town’s water tower had all but been drained dry.

That meant putting the Frankford Volunteer Fire Company on alert that they might need to call in tanker trucks from neighboring fire companies in case of a significant blaze. Quillen said he would again notify the fire company should water levels again reach “the danger point.”

Notably, the low water level in the town’s water storage tower has also meant nightly flushing of the system since the problem began, to keep sediment out of the water supply. And restoring the water supply to its normal storage level was expected to continue to be a challenge as the schools return to session and water usage increases again.

Citizens urged to keep an eye out for water

Having not been able to find the suspected leak, Quillen, Reardon and Police Chief Bill Dudley urged citizens to join the effort to locate it by keeping their eyes peeled for signs of moving water.

“We would ask that, if they see anything, they let the town know,” said Quillen, with Dudley emphasizing that any movement of water – in a liquid puddle or under a sheet of ice – could be a signal that there’s water flowing where it shouldn’t be and could warrant a call to town hall.

Property owners who have vacant homes in the town should also check to make sure they haven’t had any leaks, too, since a frozen water meter could indicate to town employees that there’s no problem at the same time a major leak is causing a problem inside the very same home or in its yard.

Quillen, in response to questions from Town Council President Greg Johnson on Monday about the Dec. 22 and 23 leaks, emphasized that the property owner is responsible for repair costs, damages and water fees for leaks that happen on their side of the water meter. The town will only pick up the repair tab and water bill for a leak if it happens on the town’s side of the meter.

They’re already dealing with a costly – and potentially dangerous – problem as they try to find the source of the leak and have to excavate areas they suspect it might be located.

Quillen said his only notion as to where the water is going, if it’s not ponding on land or filling one or more homes, is that the leak might be from a crack on the very bottom of a large water line that is feeding the lost water straight back into the local water table. Barring that unique case, he said he expects that the water is going somewhere where it could be spotted and reported to the town.

That location has, thus far, proven elusive to town staff, but they’re hoping luck – and some more eyes on the problem – will soon lead them to the source of the problem.