Fortunately, after six months of working on the leaks, Beeville’s Utility System Director Cesario Vela said he has a crack team of leak repairmen on the job.
Today, the five-man crew can repair up to three leaky pipe joints in a day, digging their way to the leak, cleaning around the joint, fitting rubber gaskets to the joints, attaching heavy steel clamps to the gaskets and bolting them tightly into place.
There is no need to shut off the flow of water to the city or to remove a length of the heavy, concrete pipe.
“These guys are good,” Vela said as he parked his pickup across the street from a work site on FM 351 just south of the Bee County Exposition Center earlier this week.
The team has repaired 17 such leaks west of U.S. Highway 59 in just two weeks, Vela said with a serious grin.
Always, the workmen have to stand, wearing rubber boots, in water a little higher than their ankles. Sometimes they have to work under a cascade of water shooting into the air from the leak and falling back into the ditch they dug earlier.
This time of year, working under such conditions on a cold morning can be taxing. But the dedicated crew keeps plugging on, digging, sliding in the mud, working rapidly in an effort to save the city money and to preserve precious water as the Coastal Bend experiences the end of a second year of substantial drought.
The casual observer may find a bed of cattails in some places and even a little standing water along the route where the water line between Swinney Switch and Beeville runs.
But those should be gone soon, according to Vela.
Since he took the job in June, the repair team has stopped close to 50 major and minor water leaks along that 18-mile stretch of concrete pipe.
Vela said the leaks are always found in the connections where one joint of concrete pipe meets another.
The pipe lengths were sealed with rubber gaskets when they were laid in the ground 30 years ago. The problem was that the entire pipeline was to have been surrounded by an envelope of sand. That would have allowed the top soil to contract and expand without affecting the pipeline connections.
Vela said that was done only in certain locations for appearances. In reality, much of the pipe was recovered with the caliche and topsoil that had been taken from the ground when the ditch was dug.
The result was a shifting of the ground around the pipeline and leaks.
Vela also blamed what he called a “water hammer” or “hydraulic shock” for the leaks.
He explained the phenomenon as a pressure surge or wave caused when a liquid or sometimes a gas is in motion and it suddenly is forced to stop or change direction.
The hammer commonly occurs when a valve or pump is suddenly closed at the end of a pipeline system or at a place where the pipeline may change direction.
The shock can cause a pipe to collapse or a rubber gasket between lengths of pipe to blow out of place.
Vela said one of the problems the repair team has encountered since beginning the project has been new leaks. When a repair is made, the increased pressure often causes another leak in a weak spot in the line that had not previously leaked.
Also, previous repair teams had been sealing off the pressure relief valves that had been installed along the line to keep the pipe connections from blowing gaskets.
“We’ve repaired 15 relief valves already,” Vela said. “We have a few more to go.”
“Those relief valves were put in there for a purpose,” he said. “They should never have been sealed.”
Vela said that a drive along the pipeline route will show that the leaks were not always in the same place as the standing water and cattails.
“Water runs downhill,” he said. You can see where a leak was repaired because the ground there has been disturbed. But follow the drop in elevation from the dirt pile to the lowest spot nearby and one finds the swampy area where the water pooled.
Vela said two of the repairs required the repair crew to remove the concrete couplings from the pipeline, at a cost of $3,800. Those couplings were replaced with Smith Blair Full Circle Repair Clamps.
That meant the flow of water to the city had to be shut down for no more than six hours, which is the maximum time that the flow of water from the plant can be stopped.
Vela, with the help of longtime utility department employee Humberto Saenz, has been able to reduce the cost of the repairs significantly. The repair clamps for the leaky joints had been costing the city $1,500 each. However, the city is now having the steel repair clamps fabricated by Todd Welding at a cost of only $750 per clamp.
“As we repair major leaks, other weak points within the 24-inch line are popping up at a slower rate,” Vela said. Now, those smaller leaks are being repaired as they occur.
The repairs should go a long way toward saving the water from Lake Corpus Christi and the Choke Canyon Reservoir as a lingering drought continues to plague most of Texas.
Six months ago, engineer Jim Urban of Urban Engineering in Corpus Christi told Beeville Water Supply District directors that up to 250,000 gallons of treated water a day were bubbling up from the pipeline to Beeville.
“We’ve bought that and we’ve treated that,” Board Chairman Jim Crumrine said then. He estimated the cost to BWSD customers was about $700 a day and up to $20,000 a month.
One of the tasks assigned to Vela when he took the job here in the summer was to address the problem and he is proud to say he has done that.
But Vela gives much of that credit to the five men who have dedicated their days to making the repairs.
Although they have become more efficient and have gone a long way toward repairing every one of the leaks in the pipeline, they still work every day in water and mud, putting up with scorching heat and numbing cold to save water and money for Beeville residents.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.