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City water tower leaks, lines break over holidays

East Seventh Street was closed from Ingalls Street to Panther Boulevard on New Year’s Day due to excess water from the east-side water tower freezing on the street. Here, ice is built up in front of Powell High School at about 10 a.m. New Year’s morning. East Seventh Street was closed from Ingalls Street to Panther Boulevard on New Year’s Day due to excess water from the east-side water tower freezing on the street. Here, ice is built up in front of Powell High School at about 10 a.m. New Year’s morning. Tribune photo by Ilene Olson

While local residents dreamt of sugar plums and counted down the hours until the New Year, staffers in the city of Powell’s Water Department were stuck dealing with a series of problems.

Between Christmas Eve and Sunday, two water mains ruptured and the city’s eastern water tower overflowed twice.

“It’s been a nightmare, but that’s winter and we expect some of it,” Water Superintendent Bill Winters said Monday.

The largest hiccup came on New Year’s Eve when a large amount of water leaked out of the city’s eastern tower off East Seventh Street.

By the time the Water Department was alerted (around midnight of the New Year) and stopped the flow, water had made it near the front of Powell High School and, in the freezing temperatures, it turned Seventh Street into what Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt called an “ice rink.”

“It’s a whole bunch of different things that made it the mess that it was,” Winters said.

The trouble began a few days earlier, when the automated system that is supposed to keep a steady level of water in the tower began glitching out, Winters said.

Basically, the system mistook the full water tower for an empty one and kept pumping water into the already-full tank, he said.

Winters said in that first glitch, the department caught the overflow quickly and thought they’d temporarily fixed things until telemetry specialists could take a more thorough look.

But the problem returned on New Year’s Eve.

The system is supposed to warn department staffers and officials with the Shoshone Municipal Pipeline whenever there’s a problem, but Winters said it crashed so completely that it didn’t issue any warnings as the water overflowed and poured out of the tower.

The tower is fed by a water line 8 inches in diameter, so “when that thing overflows, it’s putting out a lot of water,” Winters said.

He doesn’t know exactly how long the tower overflowed, but he estimates the large tap had been running for an hour to an hour and a half. A passer-by reported the leak.

The water is supposed to drain into storm water ponds to the north, but the overflow line was plugged with snow, Winters said. That led to the water — and then ice — on the road and forced the closure of Seventh Street between Panther Boulevard and Gilbert Street. City street crews plowed away the ice and applied sand, allowing the busy road to re-open around 1:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day.

Between then and Monday morning, Winters and other water staffers made sure to avoid a repeat by manually directing the tower to fill itself about every 11 hours.

With the help of specialists, they cautiously restored automated controls on Monday and Winters said Wednesday that the fixes appeared to have worked.

He said sleep had been scarce.

Sunday night had brought a different challenge, when a water main broke in the alley between Seventh and Eighth streets. That rupture led to a loss of water service from roughly midnight and 10:15 a.m. Monday for the homes between Day and Gilbert streets, Winters said.

A water line had also broken on Christmas Eve near the city’s trash transfer station (also not far from the water tower), but since that line serves only businesses, the water crews were able to shut down the water then and wait until the day after Christmas to make the repairs, Winters said.

“It seems like when things get cold it brings out the worst — whether it’s a vehicle or plumbing or whatever — it just brings out the worst in anything you try to do,” Winters said.

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