Watering guy is once again in his element


NOW THAT the restrictions on water use have been lifted, I've got a lot of heavy hosing to do.

Most of it will be serious, task-oriented watering. But I must admit that, like a lot of backyard types, I have been known to indulge in occasional bouts of recreational spraying.

This week, for example, shortly after news broke that Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening had lifted the nearly monthlong restrictions prohibiting washing cars, watering lawns and hosing down sidewalks, I searched for my old friend, the pistol-grip nozzle. It had been a long time since I held it in my hands and I was so excited, my hands trembled as I attached the nozzle to the backyard hose.

You put a fully loaded pistol-grip nozzle in my hands, and the beast in me emerges. The throbbing power of the pulsating nozzle beckons, and before I know what is happening I am drilling backyard targets with a stream of water. An airborne bug, a neighbor's unruly cat, my wife's hanging ferns -- oh how I love to watch those babies spin.

Such pleasures are fleeting. The sustained joy of high-powered watering comes not from taking potshots at flora and fauna, but rather from "working with water." Spraying the sidewalk, hosing down the driveway, washing mud out of the car wheel wells -- now that's satisfaction.

Having been deprived of such outdoor delights for the past month, I plan to spend much of Labor Day weekend getting caught up on my hose work.

One of my first duties will be washing away paint on the alley pavement -- remnants of the work performed by a crew that patched a hole in a leaky water main.

Last Saturday morning, I was walking in the alley behind my house when I heard the sound of gurgling water. I looked down and saw a stream bubbling though the asphalt. I figured it might be a miracle, an urban variation of Moses' feat of summoning water from a rock. If it wasn't a miracle, I figured it might be a broken water main. In Baltimore, with its ancient municipal plumbing, when water comes from a rock, the smart bet is a broken main.

Consulting the phone book, I tried to telephone the appropriate municipal agency, but no one would take my call. I was put on hold for 10 minutes, then cut off. I called again and again was put on hold. Then, from the alley I heard the sound of manhole covers being moved. I walked out to the alley and saw a white van from the water department. Talk about a miracle! The water department already had been called.

As many victims of broken mains discover, there is a rhythm associated with fixing a water leak. First, a verifier arrives on the scene. In this case, it was a man driving a white water department van with a yellow light on top.

As the yellow light flashed, he confirmed that water was indeed bubbling out of the alley, and that it probably was coming from a burst water main.

He also spoke into a radio microphone and, I surmised, gathered data on the layout of the buried pipes. Information about where the troubled pipes lay was spray-painted on the pavement.

A few hours later, a big blue truck appeared and the serious work started. There was the call of the jackhammer as it cut through a layer of asphalt, then a layer of paving brick, then a layer of concrete, with several feet of awful-looking dirt mixed in between the layers. This was accompanied by the drone of the pump that pulled muddy water from the newly made hole in the alley.

As I watched the river of muddy water roll down the alley, it occurred to me that the gallons of water I had conserved over the past month by not turning on my backyard hose had been wiped away in one morning by the leak in the water main.

I learned that the hole was in a 6-inch pipe, fed by a 10-inch main. The blue-truck guys told me this as I watched them work on the pipe. Ordinarily I would be too busy to spend a Saturday afternoon watching guys fix a pipe. But I found that when the water restrictions were in effect and I didn't use my pistol-grip nozzle, I had a lot of extra time on my hands.

I watched the blue-truck guys put a sleeve, a 6-inch-long band of metal, around the pipe and tighten it with three screws. The leak was fixed.

Some of these guys had worked in my alley before, fixing other holes in the pipe with other patches. Baltimore may think of itself as the city that reads, but in my alley, it is the city that patches. In the upcoming election for mayor of Baltimore, some people may be looking for the candidate who will "reform the system," but I will be looking for one who will replace old water mains.

With my "supervision," the blue-truck guys did a fine job patching the old pipe. The water supply to nearby houses was turned off only for a few hours. When it was turned back on, the water that had traveled down to Baltimore from the Susquehanna River looked as muddy as it tasted.

The color of the water from the patched pipe eventually cleared up, but the off taste remains. Whew! That Susquehanna water is some hurting H2O. I will be glad when the drought, which brought on the need to pump water from the Susquehanna and the need to conserve water, finally ends. Then we can get our old, chlorine-laden Baltimore water back.

In the meantime, I will use that Susquehanna stuff and my pistol-grip nozzle to wash off the hieroglyphics -- messages like "hand dig" -- that were sprayed in bright, ugly paint on the pavement near the leaky pipe.

I am going to sprinkle the paint with some baking soda, then blast it with my recently reactivated pistol-packing hose. I can't wait.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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