Mystery solved, Havre de Grace finds source of its massive water 'leak'

After searching for more than 36 hours for a suspected leaking water main, Havre de Grace public works crews discovered there wasn’t a leak after all. Instead, it was a frozen piece of equipment giving false readings suggesting that about 50,000 gallons an hour was leaking from a water main somewhere in the city.

But before that discovery, the search for the phantom leak was worthy of a Raymond Chandler whodunit.

The question of where was the water coming from – and going – kept people on the Department of Public Works staff and City Hall occupied for the better part of two days and nights.

The public works staff checked and turned valves and looked along streams and into storm drains in an effort to find the source of the leak.

Public works Director Tim Whittie told Mayor William T. Martin and the City Council members at Tuesday night’s council meeting there had been a considerable change in the water level in the Graceview storage tank since about 3 p.m. Monday. The water level in the tank, typically around 30 feet, was down to 25 feet, he said.

“That’s a noticeable drop within the time frame it occurred,” Whittie said during a City Council meeting.

“We’re searching the city looking for the break,” he said. By then, the search had gone on Monday night and all day Tuesday.

Public works staff had trouble getting the tank filled back to its average amount, but a valve adjustment appeared to work. Then, the water level dropped again Tuesday, Whittie said.

The water level in the tank had stabilized, he said, but hadn’t returned to 30 feet.

A few residents have complained about low water pressure, but not about discoloration – usually a sign of leakage, he said.

Whittie estimated at the time that about 50,000 gallons an hour was being leaked.

“If you can imagine that much water being leaked and we still can’t find it,” Martin said.

There had been no evidence of a water leak anywhere, Whittie said.

“The ground is frozen so it’s not popping up through,” he suggested.

Staff checked streams where the water lines cross to see if there was an increased flow from those points. They search wooded areas for sources of standing water and listened down storm drains for the sounds of flowing water.

“They’re running around all night long,” Whittie said.

Martin said he was waiting for someone to “say they’ve seen a pick-up hockey game on the street somewhere.”

By 9 p.m. Tuesday, the leak still hadn’t been found and public works staff, again hoping to get an approximate location, began asking for anyone whose water was discolored to call City Hall.

Around 5 a.m. Wednesday, public works staff were performing additional equipment inspections and determined the faulty instrumentation was the reason for the “leak,” which turned out to be false readings, not another leak springing up in the region in the wake of the recent cold snap.

The false readings the city was getting were caused by the frozen gauge.

“The extremely cold temperatures caused a gauge level indicator to freeze. Subsequently, this gave us a false reading leading us to believe water pressure was low, an indicator of a water leak,” Adam Rybczynski, digitial marketing strategist for the city, wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon.

There was some concern expressed at the City Council meeting that the “leak” could be just the beginning of water line problems caused by the recent spate of below-freezing temperatures.

“I remember you telling me it isn’t the freeze, it’s the thaw” that causes problems, Martin said to Whittie.

Not in this case. Not yet.

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