CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story was incorrect -- only the island's water supply is in danger of saltwater contamination, and the causeway workers are under contract with Pinellas County.
UPDATE: As of Saturday morning, a tanker of water had been parked at Royal Stewart Arms to assist residents.
DUNEDIN — City officials call the severing of Honeymoon Island's main water pipe "an emergency situation," warning that hundreds of homes there will be without water for a week and urging residents across the city to cut back on showering and flushing toilets.
The city's water reserves, at 4 million gallons before Tuesday's mishap, are now half that and "dropping rapidly," said public works director Douglas Hutchens. Engineers worry the hole in the side of the pipe, now losing a thousand gallons of water every minute, is eroding and could rupture, a "catastrophic failure" that would contaminate the island's water supply with saltwater.
"We know there's a hole in the pipe, and it's getting worse," water division director Paul Stanek said. "We're worried it's just going to let loose."
Water pressure to the island — home of Florida's busiest state park, a launching point to Caladesi Island and an age-restricted condo complex called Royal Stewart Arms — was dropped to about a third of its usual rate at the city's reverse-osmosis plant Friday in order to minimize the loss of water, estimated to be about $2,000 worth of water a day.
Residents in the community's three high-rises, many already complaining of a trickle at the tap, will be without water until a temporary relief pipe is submerged, connected and brought online Friday at the earliest.
Hutchens suggested that residents at the complex, which has an average age in the 80s, could move in temporarily with family or friends.
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About noon Tuesday, workers contracted by Pinellas County to repair the Dunedin Causeway bridge were predrilling to install pier fenders, Hutchens said. The drill struck the water main, which had been installed deep underwater in the Intracoastal Waterway to shield it from boat traffic.
Workers at the city water plant noticed an immediate pressure drop of 16 pounds per square inch, Hutchens said. But construction workers had no idea what they had hit. Pipes that cross the waterway, like cable or electricity, are to be recorded on maps and marked with floating buoys.
Where the contractors were drilling, according to drawings, was supposed to be 200 feet away from the largest water main to the island. But in actuality, the pipe was hidden in mud and lime rock 32 feet below the water's surface.
Hutchens said the city's maps and atlases were from the 1990s and had been shifted from contractor to consultant. But that explanation didn't make sense to apartment complex manager Sharon Wilson.
"It's the only pipe that services water out here," she told city leaders. "You didn't know it was there?"
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The 449-unit island complex, now in its "snowbird season," houses about 600 residents, Wilson said.
"We have a lot of folks who are infirm, who are invalid," she said. On Friday she organized residents in each building to check on those unable to get water for themselves. Many of them, needing elevators, live in the towers' higher units, where pressure problems are the worst.
All residents were told to turn off their water heaters at the circuit breaker because the heating elements, if exposed to air, could become a fire hazard, city fire Chief Clarence "Bud" Meyer said.
A four-person fire engine and two large tankers are now stationed at the island around the clock in case the hydrants become unusable. Firefighters on overtime camped out in the apartment complex clubhouse's game room, resting on cots or leaning on the pool table.
"Hopefully the fire can be very small and we can contain it with tank water," Meyer said, adding that drawing water from hydrants could collapse the slashed pipe. "A huge fire might be a real problem."
The water being pumped to mainland homes is safe to drink, cook and clean with, officials said. Yet they urged residents to conserve by not watering lawns, washing cars or keeping on the faucet during shaving or brushing their teeth.
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Hutchens predicted a repair or replacement of the damaged pipe could cost about $750,000, a price commissioners authorized during a meeting Thursday night.
"This is not discretionary," Commissioner David Carson said. "We have to do this, and we have to do it now."
Workers will install a line valve on the island side of the bridge, allowing engineers to isolate the leak. From there, the main may be replaced with a similar high-density line or used as a cover for a 16-inch polyethylene pipe.
Hutchens called the Friday prediction the "best-case scenario," warning that work could take longer. The causeway will not close to traffic, City Manager Rob DiSpirito said.
At a meeting at Royal Stewart Arms' clubhouse Friday afternoon, about 75 residents forwarded ideas they believed could solve their water woes, like shutting down Honeymoon Island State Park. As torrents of rain fell on the clubhouse, which showed scatters of stray bingo chips, some complained that other cities would have used divers, tankers or special pipelines to move water more efficiently.
Few seemed to panic. In fact, many seemed confident the week without water would end without issue.
Theresa Dauria and her husband, Gabriel, both 93, left the clubhouse after the meeting and headed for a grocery store. They planned to pick up food and at least 5 gallons of water for the next week's drinking.
They hadn't decided how they would shower but laughed at the possibilities.
"It will be like sponge bathing," she said. "We'll go out in the rain."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.