Portland water main break one for the record books

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PORTLAND — Residents and businesses spent recent days mopping up after the city’s  largest water main break in 16 years.

The break happened Dec. 19 at about 7:44 a.m., near 128 Somerset St. in the city’s Bayside neighborhood. The rupture in the 20-inch pipe flooded the street with knee-deep water. It disrupted service to 4,000 nearby residents and businesses, and on Munjoy Hill, the Old Port and the West End.

The break quickly led the Portland Water District to advise customers on the peninsula to boil tap water before consuming it. The boil-water order stayed in effect until 8:45 a.m. the next day.

The break also caused police to close off portions of Somerset Street and Elm Street, and forced the East End Elementary School and Reiche Community School to cancel classes.

Repair crews worked more than 15 hours to fix the broken pipe and restore service, according to water district spokeswoman Michelle Clements. But the damage won’t be completely repaired until the spring, when streets can be repaved, she said.

In the meantime, residents were trying to dry out, a process that was made more difficult by heavy, windswept rains that hit the area Friday.

“Between water from underground and water from the sky, I’ve been soaked,” said an Alder Street resident Saturday as he vacuumed his car, which he said had been partially submerged by the flood waters earlier in the week.

About 150 water main breaks occur in the region each year, according to the water district. The last rupture this serious was in 1996, when several mains broke, including a 36-inch main, Clements said.

The Somerset Street break was particularly bad because the area’s low-lying location meant customers on higher ground lost water pressure. The drop in pressure created a risk that contamination could enter the water, prompting the boil order.

The cast-iron pipe that broke last week was laid in 1912. Such an old pipe isn’t unusual for Portland. Some water and sewage pipes in the city date to around the time of the Civil War.

The water district, a quasi-public agency that manages water service to Portland and 10 other communities, is trying to replace the aging mains. But with 1,000 miles of them, carrying more than 20 million gallons of water a day, there’s a lot of work ahead.

The water district devotes about $3 million a year out of its $50 million budget for replacing mains, but hopes to increase the amount to $5 million annually by 2016, Clements said. 

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

Cars emerge from the receding waters on Somerset Street in Portland on Wednesday morning, Dec. 19, 2012 after a water main break.