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Water leak repairs are backlogged

GATESVILLE – Questions about a backlog of repairing water leaks to the county’s public water system consumed nearly a half-hour of discussion at the May 3 meeting of the board of commissioners.

“I get more phone calls about the Water Department than any other department,” stated Commission Chairwoman Linda Hofler, addressing her remarks to Timmy Hedgepeth, Water Department Supervisor

“Our water system is old, it’s been in place for a number of years and I know there are leaks,” Hofler stated. “What is the procedure in dealing with leaks?”

“When we’re notified of leaks, we put them on a list and try to get to them as soon as possible,” Hedgepeth answered. “We do have a backlog of leaks that have constantly been bumped from priority. We went through this late last year and we able to get the majority of that backlog taken care of.”

Hofler asked for the number of leaks on the backlog list still in need of repair, to which Hedgepeth said, “six or seven.”

“All but one of those leaks is minimal flow, it’s just a saturated area with a trickle of water,” Hedgepeth noted. “Most are on major highways where the (road) shoulders are narrow and there are multiple fibers (other utility lines) present. It will take at least a five-person crew to help control traffic and safely repair those leaks.”

Hofler inquired of the average time it takes the Water Department to repair leaks once they are reported.

“We changed things up last year; now when we’re notified of new leaks, we’re trying to get those (repaired) within one month of notification,” Hedgepeth answered. “Then we’re mixing in the older leaks (repair) so we will not be constantly getting further and further behind.”

He added that customers of the county’s public water system call the Customer Service Department from where a work order is generated.

“At that time we send a staff member to investigate the leak and document the address,” Hedgepeth remarked. “It’s then added to the list and that comes to me so we can try and schedule repairs.”

Hedgepeth stressed that his department was hoping to catch up on the backlog of leaks during the current spring months. However, the renovation/repair work to the water plant, the failure of well #1, and the wet weather has derailed that plan. He added that over the winter months his department was short-staffed due to two employees being out on extended leave.

“There are multiple things that have pulled me out of the field,” Hedgepeth said, adding that his department consists of three employees dedicated solely to the public water system, another handles the sewer issues, and the fifth member of the team is himself and he works both water and sewer.

“In the first two weeks of each month we’re tied up with reading water meters due to the timeline with generating the water bills; I can’t pull them off unless it’s an extreme emergency,” Hedgepeth stressed. “Then, in the last three to four days of each month we’re tied up with (water) lock-outs (for those late paying their bill) and re-connects (after late payment is made). That leaves about a week or so window to make repairs each month.”

“Can your employees work without you being physically present,” Hofler asked.

‘They can if a repair is on a back road where there’s not a lot of traffic,” he answered. “It’s not all about me being present, but rather from a traffic control and safety issue. If an OSHA representative drives by and sees we only have a three-person crew working on the side of a busy highway, that won’t end well.”

Hofler said she has spoken with one water customer on US 158, past Sugar Run Road, who reported a leak two years ago.

“I don’t know what to do with that one….it’s a pothole and whatever I do their driveway will be demolished,” Hedgepeth observed. “That’s one where there are fibers present. Plus it has a minimum amount of flow (smaller leak) that keeps getting pushed back on the (repair) list.”

“It may be a minimal trickle, but the calls keep coming,” Hofler stressed. “Do you realize that if a water leak is at six drops a minute, that’s over 3,000 gallons in the course of a year? Some of this (leak area) is buckling up; I stopped and looked.”

Hofler cited three other water leaks on NC 32 South, to include one that was at a new meter installed six months ago. Hedgepeth said he was aware of all those leaks; and one was over two years old.

“It’s hard to tell our folks that it’s taking so long to repair these leaks,” Hofler stressed. “How long do you think it will take you to get caught up with these leaks?”

“I’m hoping to do so by this summer,” Hedgepeth replied. “But that’s still hard to do considering all the breakdowns, mechanical renovations and having contractors scattered all over the county. We just completed the repairs on May 2 along highway 32 due to the situation we had after Hurricane Matthew (in October of last year). The other major repair (from the same storm) on highway 158 was completed a couple of weeks ago.”

Commissioner Henry Jordan noted that the county’s public water system is roughly 40 years old and has basically paid for itself by now.

“But we’re now at a point where we have to stay on top of quality control of this aging system,” Jordan remarked. “We need to make repairs to leaks in an acceptable timeframe. It’s not that you and your department aren’t working as hard as you can, but now there’s another dimension because our water system is so old. We need to make provisions to fix these leaks and manage them better.

“When our water customers do not pay their bills on time, we cut their water off quickly; if we expect them to be prompt in making those payments then they deserve the same treatment from us in making repairs,” Jordan added.

Hedgepeth stressed that making repairs is not just “digging a hole and fixing the problem.”

“There’s traffic control; there’s having to keep eyes on the hole to prevent a collapse,” he said. “I’d love to have another staff member.”

Jordan suggested that the water department use private contractors to make some repairs.

“I have typically contracted leaks out that have a greater liability than what we normally deal with,” Hedgepeth admitted.

Hofler suggested that a form be developed that provides more detail about water leaks….the date they are reported; the location, and date repaired.

“If we had a better idea that things are getting done in a timely manner, that we’re chipping away at this backlog, then the phone calls (complaints) will stop,” she said. “I do appreciate your response to these questions, Mr. Hedgepeth, as I feel better informed about the workings of our water system.”

“I understand that customers see a leak and report it, but what a lot do not understand is us making repairs isn’t the only job we have. Unfortunately, the way this 38-year-old system has treated us over the last six months, it’s been a nightmare….one trouble after another, and that’s not even counting the leaks,” Hedgepeth concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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