By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Three days after a rampaging fire destroyed three Hancock Street homes while firefighters scrambled for water from hydrants running on vapors, Public Works Director John Isensee and Fire Chief Jack Bergeron assured a shaken City Council last night that a plan is underway to fix the underground water works even if all the money to complete the task isn’t on hand.
“What can we not afford?” Isensee said when City Council President Frank Moran asked what it would cost to unclog the decades of rust choking the already narrow pipes that supply hydrants in neighborhoods outside downtown and away from the main thoroughfares, where the problem is most severe.
“We lost about $700,000 in property (in Sunday’s blaze),” Isensee said. “How can you afford not to do these things?... I’m heartsick for these people losing their homes, possessions, their pets, everything they own.”
In an hour-long discussion with the council, Isensee and Bergeron explained that low pressure in the rust-clogged pipes that supply Hancock Street was the cause of the problem firefighters confronted in fighting Sunday’s blaze, not the hydrants themselves.
Isensee said the pressure from the 4-inch line supplying the Hancock Street hydrants was between 60 and 70 pounds per square inch on Sunday, which he said was plenty. But he said the pipes were feeding the hydrants with only about 170 gallons a minute, a tenth of what the wider, uncongested pipes were delivering to hydrants a few blocks away, which the firefighters eventually connected to.
“There was plenty of pressure, just no water,” Isensee told the council, holding up a 4-inch water pipe so clogged by rust that only about an inch of flow remained. “(We need) to clean and line the pipes.”
A first fix is already underway, in the $15.8 million upgrade to the city water supply system that the council approved last year. Much of the borrowing will pay to finish upgrading the water meters at every home and business in the city, which will allow the city to bill more accurately and collect the revenues needed to pay for cleaning and relining clogged pipes, or replacing them. The borrowing also will pay to fix the broken valves that have shut down part of the delivery system.
A second phase that would begin the process of clearing or replacing the clogged pipes in the 140-mile underground water delivery system also is about to get underway. Over the next four months, engineers will develop models of the flow through the system to identify where the problems are worst, information that will be used to rank repairs as the money becomes available.
In the meantime, Councilor Daniel Rivera suggested rating all of the city’s 1,300 hydrants according to the pressure they deliver and marking the hydrants with that information so that firefighters know what to expect when they arrive.
Isensee said that could cause another sort of problem.
“We have so many problem areas in the city that it’s going to cause an uproar among citizens,” he said.
The sewer and water department has accumulated a $7 million surplus in recent years, which Isensee said is hardly enough to do the work needed to clear and replace pipes. But he said the state often provides grants and low-interest loans for the projects.
“The water supply system has been benignly neglected for 50 years,” Chief Bergeron told the council. “That’s no fault of anyone’s. We haven’t had the finances to maintain the system.”