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Pinellas boil-water notice continues as crews try to fix water main

LARGO — A mandatory boil-water notice is still in effect for an estimated 100,000 people in south Pinellas County, even as crews work round the clock to repair a broken water main.

Officials say the area affected by the notice could be narrowed this morning, depending on the results of water testing. They hope to have those results by 10 a.m. Officials don't expect water service to be fully restored until Tuesday.

The broken water main, at 142nd Avenue N and Belcher Road, is one of three primary feeders for county water customers in south Pinellas. It was scheduled for replacement as part of a yearlong project that began in August, Kevin Becotte, the county's interim utilities director, said Saturday.

Becotte said the pipe has been repaired at other times. He said age was the likely cause of the break.

"We were just hoping this pipe would last" until crews reached it, Becotte said.

Crews noticed a small leak about 3:30 p.m. Thursday. They started digging and found a major rupture in a 4-foot-wide pipe.

Making matters worse, a different project along U.S. 19 N had shut down one of the other north-south feeders. The result was a complete loss of service to some customers in Pinellas Park and reduced water pressure to other customers there and in Clearwater, Largo, Seminole, much of the beaches and some areas north of Belleair Road.

Pinellas County spokesman Dave Baker estimated that 100,000 customers in south county were affected by the break. But only one residential and 38 commercial customers remained without any water Christmas morning.

The county issued a boil-water order for customers south of Belleair Road who get their water through Pinellas County and for those in the north who lost water or water pressure. That does not include St. Petersburg and Dunedin, which have their own water supplies.

Crews worked Friday night to restore the U.S. 19 pipe, and other crews continued working through Christmas to repair the Belcher Road pipe.

County officials also opened a water distribution site on Christmas Day at the Pinellas County Utilities' General Maintenance Department, 6730 142nd Ave. N, for those without water. The site was scheduled to remain open noon to 8 p.m. today if needed.

The water distribution site was doing a brisk business after it opened at noon. Within an hour, eight pallets containing 48 cases (1,536 bottles) of water had been given away.

The site was staffed by employees from the county parks department. Vernon Bryant, horticultural manager of the department, said the employees were being paid, but none were required to work Christmas Day.

"I'm cooking as we speak," Bryant said. "My wife's watching it."

Bryant said he would go home, eat, then come back to make sure things were going well.

Becotte canceled a trip to Orlando to celebrate the holiday with his family so he could oversee the repairs.

"My mom called and said we're meeting next week to do Christmas," he said.

Officials said they did their best to notify everyone affected by the boil-water notice, but acknowledge there has been confusion.

Because so many residents needed to be notified at once, the county used the reverse-call feature of its 911 system. As a result, some residents of St. Petersburg, who are exempt from the boil-water notice because they use city water, got a call.

If they had listened to the end of the message, officials said, they would have heard that St. Petersburg residents aren't affected.

"That's just an unavoidable part of making these kinds of calls," Baker said.

Gulfport and South Pasadena, which use only water purchased from St. Petersburg, also can disregard the boil notice, Becotte said.

Though water pressure picked up strength Saturday, a countywide alert sent to Pinellas firefighters remains in effect. When there is low pressure at a hydrant, firefighters must depend largely on water trucks. Baker said the alert will remain active until the water system is completely stabilized.

Becotte said the county might be able to reduce the geographical area of the boil-water mandate this morning if testing shows the water is not contaminated. He said the first round of testing went well. More samples were collected Christmas Day.

But even if the county lifts the ban elsewhere, it will remain in effect for the 39 customers who still lack service, Becotte said.

Until the repairs are made and the system is operating normally, officials are urging south county customers to conserve water wherever possible.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas boil-water notice continues as crews try to fix water main 12/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 10:35am]

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