OLDSMAR — It could be argued that delivering fresh drinking water through your tap is the most important thing a city does.
Sure, putting cops on the street is important. Sewage plants and trash pickup are handy. Code enforcement and recreation centers are nice.
But water for drinking and cooking and showering is crucial. That's why, when Oldsmar recently lost water service for a weekend, City Hall vowed to make sure it would never happen again.
This week, the Oldsmar City Council got a lengthy briefing on what went wrong the weekend of July 21-22, and what steps the city is taking to avoid a repeat.
A broken 8-inch water pipe left homes and businesses in the city of 14,000 without a consistent source of water for 36 hours as public works employees searched the city, struggling to find the leak. Eventually, a resident on a dirt bike found it.
The main problem, officials said, was that this leak was very well hidden. Normally, a water main break is apparent and is quickly spotted. But this one was in an old fire hydrant feed line, hidden in a water-filled drainage ditch on the eastern edge of the city. The water pouring out of the broken pipe was obscured by the water that was already in the ditch.
Also, the leak was right beneath a palm tree, which hid it from helicopter searches.
"The city has never had a break this big that we have not been able to find within 15 minutes. It's just never happened," said Lisa Rhea, Oldsmar's public works director.
Rhea recounted a timeline of events from that Saturday morning:
1:30 a.m.: Water main breaks.
3 a.m.: An operator starts getting calls from residents about low pressure.
5 a.m.: Crews arrive at water pump station, try to restart system.
6:30 a.m.: Workers begin driving the streets, searching for the leak.
9:30 a.m.: Crews begin isolating parts of the water system. That means they identify a section of piping, find the appropriate valve, and turn it off. If the surrounding water pressure rises, the broken pipe is in that section.
However, Oldsmar has 4,000 valves along 100 miles of water pipe in a 10-square-mile city. Rhea described crews working their way through the system "like hopscotch" all day Saturday, opening and closing valves.
At 10 a.m. that Saturday, Oldsmar established an emergency operations center, mostly to handle communications. The city's telephone system mailbox filled up with about 1,000 messages.
By 11 p.m. Saturday, water service was restored to the northern and western parts of the city.
It wasn't until noon Sunday that a resident flagged down a city worker and showed him the location of the leak. Water was restored to the rest of the city later that day.
So what should Oldsmar do differently next time? Rhea said officials are examining several options:
• Re-evaluate the alarm system at the city's water pump station.
• Establish "isolation zones" within the city's water system — perhaps eight different sections of pipes, with maps of where all the valves are. This could help workers isolate problems faster.
• Explore using remote pressure monitoring or leak detection equipment.
Mayor Jim Ronecker was unsatisfied with what he viewed as a lack of communication on the weekend of the leak.
"I understand we had the perfect storm going on," he said. But it was frustrating to call various city phone numbers and find the voice mailboxes full.
Most Oldsmar City Council members were satisfied that the city is taking steps to avoid a repeat.
"I'm very impressed with what you have come up with to maybe alleviate the time factor if we have another major break," said Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.