AWWU: Water system fared well against the big earthquake

Published: Dec. 27, 2018 at 6:36 PM AKST
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The water distribution system for the City of Anchorage performs well under pressure after being seriously tested by last month's earthquake, according to Anchorage Water and Waste Water Utility.

There have been about 50 breaks in the city's water distribution system since the day of the earthquake. AWWU says despite those breaks, the system has shown impressive resilience to the big earthquake.

AWWU General Manager Brett Jokela says when the earthquake hit on Nov. 30, his wife turned and looked at him and said, “You have to go to work.” He says within three days, AWWU staff had earned $270,000 worth of overtime from answering phones and repairing damaged water lines around the clock.

AWWU has found and isolated line breaks using a remote monitoring system connected to main line valve vaults across the city. Jokela says it hasn’t been easy monitoring 1,600 miles of water and sewage piping from Eklutna Lake through Anchorage and all the way to Girdwood.

Crews have repaired seven broken lines in the past week, but they’re not all necessarily earthquake-related. A repair team was digging down to a broken water line on Baxter Thursday morning.

Jokela says AWWU’s response kept water flowing to most buildings throughout the system in the days following the earthquake.

"That's an indication of the value of the city's investment in not only preparing, but enhancing the distribution system, and the resiliency that's a result," Jokela said.

Jokela says if the city had to replace the entire water distribution system in one shot, it would cost close to $9 billion. “Happily, things normally break one at a time, not all at once,” he said.

Joe Polowy is the superintendent of the Ship Creek Water Treatment Facility, and oversees distribution operations for AWWU. He says the system was built and ready for a major earthquake.

"It's one that we have studied for and practiced for,” Polowy said. “And although you can't design every disaster, it's one that we were ready for as much as we could be."

Polowy says the Nov. 30 earthquake was the most devastating event he's experienced in his 22 years as a water treatment plant operator, with over 6,100 aftershocks as of Thursday.

Many people around Anchorage awoke to a magnitude 4.9 aftershock early Thursday morning. Jokela said he jumped nervously out of bed when it hit, worried about more damage to the water lines. But as of Thursday afternoon, AWWU reported no new line breaks resulting from the aftershock.

As far as system costs directly related to the earthquake, Jokela says they will have spent close to $5 million by the end of 2018 – when it’s all said and done, he expects costs to be around $10 million.