There was a period during the recent winter storm when the City of Kilgore’s water system lost 3.5 million gallons of water storage in 12 hours.
City officials had thought there were undiscovered main breaks contributing to the massive water loss the city saw between that Wednesday and Thursday — until they started getting hundreds of calls for water shutoffs, Public Works Director Clay Evers said.
Just call it death by a thousand breaks. Pipes across the city at homes and businesses and two industrial plants were bursting and causing a surge in water demand so unprecedented that the system couldn’t meet it.
The city’s winter water usage is typically around 800 gallons a minute. That week at the highest peak, it spiked to 3,500 gallons per minute, which is equivalent to the daily water usage of the City of Lufkin... and Marshall... and Kilgore... and Carthage combined.
“We were full that morning, and by 7 p.m. it was gone,” Evers said. “And when I say full, all of our available storage facilities were full of water. All of our available production wells were online and operating. And by the end of the day... by 7 p.m. we had gone below state minimums.”
Evers says that Wednesday was the day everything went haywire. Temperatures had been below freezing since the end of the week before, and Wednesday was the day things started to thaw.
Evers said two of industrial facilities in the city had large breaks in addition to the many residential and business breaks. Between seven and 10 city employees went out throughout the city to help shut off water, while roads were still hazardous.
“It was just constant shutoffs even though the night,” Evers said. “We had dispatch, we were finding homes also that were vacant, for sale, businesses that hadn’t gone and checked their water for the whole week that had experienced breaks.”
As connections were turned off, Evers said it was apparent that there was no big main break. It was all the little breaks adding up.
“The sheer number of personal water main/water system breaks inside their homes and inside businesses: you add all of those up, and that is an enormous amount of water that far exceeded our storage capacity and our ability to meet that demand,” Evers said. “We saw demands well in excess of four, five, six, seven times our highest peak demands.”
The city still doesn’t have an exact number of water breaks, Evers said, because often while responding to one call, employees would see other breaks and shut off more water connections. The city is reconstructing that number as they get calls to turn water back on.
The city itself had 11 water main breaks between Feb. 17 and Feb. 23, when the boil notice was rescinded, most of them 2-inch lines and a handful of larger lines. One of the water system’s wells also had a frozen valve, which prevented it from coming on as demand increased; city officials had to build fires underneath the valve to break it lose.
The city also brought its water treatment plant online, which draws surface water from the Sabine River, to help replenish its empty wells. Normally the plant is not in operation in winter because the demand is not there.
“All in all, what our experience was in that particular moment over those few days was that our demand, our water loss far exceeded our storage supplies and production capacity that was available to us at that time,” Evers said. “Given the sheer number of water shutoffs, all signs point to that it was series — just a volume of people’s pipes freezing and thawing loose.
“The volume of water loss was just unprecedented in my 20-year career. I’ve never seen anything like that,” Evers said.