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Repairs beginning to prevent 'catastrophic' failure of regional water main

Nearly 2 million residents are being asked to conserve drinking water for the next three weeks so crews can complete "proactive" repairs to an aging water main in Southwest Baltimore that serves the region.

Alfred H. Foxx, Baltimore's public works director, urged customers of Baltimore's regional water system to immediately begin taking conservation steps such as not washing clothes or watering lawns until after sunset or early in the morning.

Foxx also warned that some residents of Southwest Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel and Howard counties may see a slight, temporary drop in water pressure on Thursday, and perhaps even a disruption in service, as crews prepare to replace three 16-foot sections of a 54-inch-diameter water main that serves those areas.

"We anticipate very minimal reduction in water pressure during this process if we conserve water," Foxx said at a news conference Monday. "This will greatly aid in this effort. ... We should start conserving immediately."

Foxx said the repair work is needed to prevent a potential failure on the Southwest Transmission Main, a pre-stressed concrete pipeline dating from the 1970s.

The problem was identified by the use of two technologies: an electromagnetic wave inspection process and an acoustic fiber optic cable monitoring system. Foxx said the inspections indicated that a failure could occur on a 16-foot section near Whistler and Wilmarco avenues in Southwest Baltimore, part of the Norfolk Southern Railroad line that is not in use.

Foxx has said the city needs to take advantage of new technologies to avoid "catastrophic" incidents such as 2009 water main breaks that disrupted service to Dundalk and Halethorpe.

The estimated repair cost is "about $300,000," assuming no other problems are discovered once work is under way, according to Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher. Money for repairs will come out of the city's water fund, he said.

Besides residents of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Howard counties, Baltimore's water system serves residents of Baltimore County and part of Harford County. Foxx said officials do not anticipate that any roads will be blocked by the work, since the construction area is an out-of-service railroad line.

Before the work begins, Foxx said, public works employees in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Howard County will be closing valves and making other "system flow adjustments" to ensure adequate water supply to all customers, and that is when the drop in water pressure may occur.

Public works officials announced in March that they have arranged to use "advanced inspection technologies" over the next five years to inspect all of the large mains in Baltimore's system for signs of deterioration, without taking them out of service. One of the first lines inspected was the Southwest main.

Since 2008, in cooperation with Howard County, they also have been using an acoustic fiber-optic cable system to monitor water mains continuously. Foxx said the work on the Southwest main is a sign that the inspections are paying off. He said it is much more cost-effective to repair a water main before it fails than to repair it after a break.

"Due to proactive work" on the part of the city, he said, "we have gotten ahead of a potential matter."

Foxx said he expects public officials in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties to also urge water conservation measures for the next three weeks, to coincide with the repairs. Howard County has issued a water conservation request on its website.

The suggested measures include: refraining from watering, car washing, power washing and pool topping until after sunset or early in the morning; not washing clothes or dishes until late in the evening or early in the morning; and reporting open hydrants.

Foxx said there is a "slight chance" that there could be a temporary interruption of water service, mainly in the southwest portion of the city. Residents who experience a disruption in water service are advised to call 311 if they live in Baltimore City and 410-396-5352 if they live outside the city limits.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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