A year ago, a traffic crash caused a huge water main break that led to tens of thousands of metro-east residents being under a boil order.
Last week, a similar break happened, this one affecting up to 75,000 people. Schools closed for a day and emergency response was needed after that large break Thursday, which Illinois American Water Company officials attributed to “aging infrastructure.”
What are the chances of a third major break happening in the metro-east?
“It’s hard to pinpoint,” said Karen Cotton, a spokeswoman for Illinois American Water. “There are a lot of things that play into a water main break. Age (of the pipe) plays a factor. Weather can be a factor. Shifting in soil plays a factor as does water pressure.”
The only common denominator in the 2016 break and last week’s is that the breaks occurred in the same 24-inch-diameter pipeline located near Illinois 161 and Old Caseyville Road in Swansea. Cotton said the 24-inch pipe is one of the biggest the company uses. She said there are a few pipes as big as 30 inches in diameter but most pipes in neighborhoods are typically 6 to 8 inches in diameter.
We continually upgrade our water mains. If a main has a break, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be replaced. In this instance, a repair was all that was needed and we repaired 18 feet of a 24-inch main. We do look to replace mains. We do it continuously. A lot of times the mains we replace are smaller ones.
Karen Cotton, spokeswoman, Illinois American Water
Over the last 15 years, the average number of water main breaks in lines serviced by Illinois American Water has decreased. From 2001-2005, there were an average of 676 breaks a year in the metro-east, a number that dipped to an average of 537 a year from 2011 through 2015. Cotton said she did not have statistics for 2016, but said it was a normal year for main breaks.
“We continually upgrade our water mains,” Cotton said. “If a main has a break, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be replaced. In this instance, a repair was all that was needed and we repaired 18 feet of a 24-inch main. We do look to replace mains. We do it continuously. A lot of times the mains we replace are smaller ones.”
In 2015, Illinois American Water replaced 13 miles of pipes and followed that in 2016 with nine miles of pipe replacement. That work was part of a plan to replace 45 miles of pipes in the metro-east during a five-year span through 2017.
If another large main burst happens, Cotton is hopeful the public reacts like it did during the last two.
“People were so supportive,” she said. “I think they appreciated our continuous updates. It’s an inconvenience, and we understand that. But the support and understanding we received from our customers was overwhelming. We thank them for their patience. That helps our team work and focus on what they need to do.”
The company issued a boil-water order shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday for Belleville, Swansea and Shiloh, and it was later extended to customers in Millstadt, Columbia, Waterloo.
Crews isolated the break and were able to restore water pressure for some customers later Thursday morning, though the company said about 100 customers living in the area closest to the break were without water service until about 1:30 a.m. Friday when it was repaired. That 100-customer area included all of Dutch Hollow Village. By Saturday, the boil order was lifted for all of those who previously were affected.