City paid for neglect after leaving water system vulnerable

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Eight years after shrinking its staff, Fort Lauderdale still doesn't have the workers it needs to be sure a water line failure doesn't leave the city dry the way it did last month.

A contractor's mistake July 18 ruptured a pipe feeding the city's primary water treatment plant, but the city's failure to maintain the system made the situation worse than it should have been.

Valves that were needed to reroute water around the damaged pipe weren't working. Crews that had done annual maintenance on the valves had been eliminated about eight years ago as the city cut its budget following the Great Recession — and the positions have never been restored, Mayor Dean Trantalis said Friday (Aug. 2).

Workers during the crisis had trouble even finding a key buried valve because its above-ground marker was missing. Instead, the city had to bring in sonar equipment to locate it, Trantalis said.

The break forced dozens of offices and restaurants to close as water dried up and left the city's 220,000 water customers boiling their water for days to make sure it was safe to drink.

Even today, city officials can't point to anything that would prevent a similar crisis in the future. Trantalis has requested that City Manager Chris Lagerbloom present recommendations within the next few months for city commissioners to consider.

"Whatever has happened in the past, this new commission must now take responsibility and ownership of the needs of our infrastructure system," Trantalis said.

He's particularly interested in an electronic sensor system used in other cities that would provide an early warning to problems within the city's pipes. He didn't have a cost estimate, but he said it could be expensive.

"They're sensors placed within the system that provide a tracking map that will alert us to weaknesses and faults within the system, without us having to play hide and seek," Trantalis said. "It seems to be a necessity if we're ever going to prevent calamities like this from happening again."

City staff has been reluctant to talk about the incident while the city conducts its own investigation into the matter.

A report days after break showed that the contractor, Florida Communication Concepts, had used a statewide service for digging underground and the city had not alerted it to the water line. Only then did the city come out to say the company had given the service the wrong address for where it planned to dig.

City Attorney Alain Boileau, who is leading the investigation into the break, said he's not sure when he will finish. "A good amount of information, particularly regarding the contractor, is difficult to obtain" after several businesses sued over their losses.

City spokesman Chaz Adams, responding Friday for Lagerbloom, said the city "is reviewing its procedures with regard to the operation and maintenance of valves."

"We are in the process of reviewing our budget now and any modifications related to staffing, equipment or other items would be brought to the Commission as part of the budget adoption process," Adams said in an email. "As part of our review, staff is looking at several operational and procedural adjustments that could enhance our operations."

He would not elaborate on potential options.

The commission will approve a new annual budget in September.

Commissioner Steve Glassman said the city has to get the water system in order.

"This is going to be for me the priority No. 1 conversation. It's been exasperating for me, every day, to have to worry about why this is happening," he said.

The city's water system has been neglected for years. In the city's 2017 utility master plan, consultants said the "current water system has been underfunded for at least the last decade and now requires immediate attention." They said that while money had been used to improve the distribution system, "the pipes are failing at a faster rate and with service lines nearing the end (of their useful life), an increased level of (renewal and replacement) is required."

The report estimated the city would need to spend close to $350 million over the next six years repairing and replacing deteriorating water pipes.

The City Commission approved a $200 million bond last year, but it covers wastewater and storm water improvements in addition to improvements to the drinking water system.

Trantalis said up until a few weeks ago, the city's major focus had been on fixing its broken sewage system to meet the requirements of an agreement it reached when the state demanded the city come up with a plan to repair its aging lines. The state acted after a series of sewer line breaks spilled millions of gallons of raw sewage onto city streets and into waterways.

But a 2016 city report made clear the problems were just as much with the water system as the wastewater system, showing that water line breaks were on pace to triple over a four-year period. More than a third of the city's water mains were more than 60 years old, it said, and they were being worn down by salty groundwater eating away at their concrete and metal materials.

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Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/