Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12/10/02]

Water main breaks plague Atlanta

 By D.L. BENNETT

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A weekend with six water main breaks had Atlanta's private water provider hopping and hundreds of city residents with service problems.

Water service was expected to be back to normal in all parts of the city by this morning, but United Water Services Atlanta officials said more breaks can be expected as Atlanta transitions from fall to winter.

"What we are seeing here, with the slight increase in main breaks, is normal here in Atlanta and around the country," said John Cheslik, assistant vice president of operations for United Water.

United Water has averaged about 280 breaks a year since taking over Atlanta's system in late 1998.

Chris New, Atlanta water system manager, said Atlanta averaged about 150 breaks a year when it ran the system five years ago. The number has increased, he said, because the drought dried the earth and caused more pressure on old pipes.

Most happen in remote locations or affect so few customers they never get much public attention. Occasionally, though, they cut off service to Hartsfield International Airport, stop traffic along major roads or occur on well-traveled roads, such as this weekend's breaks on Roswell Road and off Peachtree Road near Peachtree Hills Avenue.

Cheslik said variations in temperature cause the ground to swell and contract, which can force buried pipes to shift, weaken and eventually fail.

Unless a contractor cuts a line, crews never know what causes a failure unless they dig in the area. And even then, it's somewhat of a guessing game, he said.

"It's somewhat of a complicated scenario," Cheslik said.

The weekend's two major cuts caused significant disruption for Atlanta water customers.

The Roswell Road break cut off service temporarily to 600 customers at the Post Chastain apartment complex nearby. By late Monday afternoon, United Water had found a circular hole in the 12-inch pipe buried 9 feet under ground. They kept water flowing by using a nearby hydrant and fire hoses to route water around the break and to the complex.

Crews on Peachtree Hills found the line cracked and needing a repair sleeve, Cheslik said. That break stopped service to about 20 customers, officials said.

The breaks come as Atlanta is trying to prod United Water to improve its service. Mayor Shirley Franklin expects to decide by year's end whether to retain the firm. She cited United Water in September for not meeting up the terms of the two-decade, $21.4 million-a-year contract.

Jack Ravan, head of Atlanta's Watershed Management department, said the cracks on Roswell Road are the third such occurrence in less than two years. "We need to do a detailed analysis and find out what the problem is so we can correct it permanently," Ravan said.

Overall, he said the firm was "slow" to respond and make repairs but is taking the proper steps.