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Faced with the worst drought in Houston history, Houston has maintained a healthy water supply. Hundreds of water main breaks, however, prompted the city to call for voluntary conservation for the first time in a decade. About 300 city employees work in drinking water operations and 600 more respond to utility maintenance calls to keep water flowing. Yvonne W. Forrest, senior assistant director of drinking water operations, took time to discuss the city’s water situation with Chronicle reporter Jennifer Radcliffe.
Q: How excited were you when it rained this week?
A: We were looking for some relief because the pumpage up until last Friday kept going up and up. Water quality becomes an issue for us and keeping water fresh in the system. Customers were complaining more about the pressure and the quality.
Q: Did voluntary conservation make a difference?
A: It’s hard to tell with the rain, but it probably did. On Saturday the 17th we were producing 632 (millions of gallons) and Thursday the 23rd we were at 544. Some of it’s rain, but that’s almost 100 million gallons. Some of it’s people turned their sprinklers off or limited what they’re doing. I’m hoping this dry weekend it doesn’t spike back up. I think this will be the test.
Q: Does using 632 millions of gallons in one day make anyone nervous?
A: Yes. It makes us quite nervous because my counterpart that operates the utility maintenance branch has been addressing the water leaks. The mayor asked everybody to just call them in so we’re aware of them. He tracks his backlog. He had 604 open work orders pending repairs. He had 1,467 open service requests.
Q: Is there a number at which you would panic?
A: We have 842 million gallons a day of capacity so our first conservation trigger would be (reaching) 80 percent of the capacity for three days. The other trigger is reservoirs. Lake Livingston until this week had been 100 percent full because it’s been raining in Dallas. Lake Conroe and Lake Houston have been dropping, but the volume available in Lake Livingston is about 75 percent of our capacity.
The third trigger is system pressure and that’s where we were getting closest and probably triggered most of the concern. While we have the water in the reservoirs and we have the capacity, the main breaks were making it difficult for some areas to maintain the pressures. Like downtown, these high-rises need water to get to a certain floor so that they have fire protection in the building. We are required to maintain 35 pounds per square inch. Normally, we have 50 or 60 pounds downtown and in the Med Center and Galleria, but with the main breaks and the high usage, there were some systems that had 45 pounds in the system, but their fire protection didn’t have enough water.
Q: What causes the leaks?
A: The soil itself is splitting apart because it’s dry. When that occurs it puts stress on the pipes. You have this cold water, this hot ground. It’s going to break. There’s two different types of breaks. There’s one, it’s basically a burst in the pipe. Those are easily fixed by putting a wrap around that particular portion of the pipe. You dig a hole, wrap it up, cover it up, move on. Then you have the splits where it splits 10 or 12 feet. Those are larger water main repairs because you can’t just put a wrap around it.
Q: So you guys are busy?
A: Quite busy. It’s the people I get to represent who are the unsung heroes. We see the people with the badges and the guns and the hoses and you see the city and that’s what you think of as the responders, but you can’t put out a fire unless my guys are really working to make sure the water is there. They’re there 24-7, holidays.