Spate of leaks spurs questions

Utility workers hurried Tuesday to repair a 24-inch water main at the intersection of Selwyn Avenue and Woodlawn Road, the fourth such leak in south Charlotte this week.

Officials with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities said water-line breakdowns are common, but it was unusual that so many hit one area.

“We have 3,850 miles of pipe in our system,” said Vic Simpson, utility spokesman. “Mechanical things break. What we have had here is a rash of some high-visibility repairs.”

Officials said they did not know what caused the leaks or whether they were related.

But Charlotte City Council member Nancy Carter worries they reflect a larger problem.

The utility department's five-year capital improvement plan calls for $1 billion in construction and repairs. Historically the city has been able to fund only about a third of its infrastructure requests.

“Charlotte is a city that has been growing fast for a long, long time, and what we are seeing now is a strain on our aging infrastructure,” Carter said. “I definitely think these leaks are a sign of things to come.”

Earlier this month Carter drove to Raleigh to lobby for help on infrastructure funding. She said without it, Charlotte would likely see more problems with its roads and with its water system.

Last week an 8-inch water pipe sprang a leak near the intersection of Selwyn Road and Park Road, which caused the shutdown of four lanes of traffic. Later that week, a leaky pipe off South Boulevard, between Clanton Road and New Bern Road, left some businesses and a small condominium complex without water for a night.

But the most alarming problem occurred Friday when water began bubbling up along Providence Road, eventually spilling into Briar Creek.

Officials were forced to shut down a 54-inch line, one of the main waterlines to southern and eastern Mecklenburg County. The line was installed in 1986 and 1987, officials said, and was designed to last between 50 years and 100 years.

Workers spent Tuesday digging down to the line, which runs about 20 feet below the surface where Briar Creek runs under Providence. They installed an access point, which allowed a climber to crawl into the pipe and search for the damage.

Simpson said officials hope the problem can be fixed from inside the pipe. If so, he said they could be finished this weekend.

If that doesn't work, they'll have to excavate and replace part of the pipe, which could mean detours and lane closures. That could take weeks.

“We are just not going to know what we are dealing with until we send someone into that line,” he said.

Crews have re-routed water from the pipe to other areas so that south Charlotte customers still get service. Utility officials said customers should still conserve water to prevent losing water pressure while repairs are being made.

“We won't run out of water, said Cam Coley, also with CMU. “But areas could see lower-than-usual pressure, and we're just trying to keep it so the repair isn't that noticeable.”

So far this year the utility department has responded to 1,035 water main breaks, averaging more than 200 a month. Simpson said this week has been typical, with crews responding to about 50 problems. The four in south Charlotte happen to be in high-traffic areas.

“They were not on cul-de-sacs,” he said. “So a lot of people had to deal with them.” Steve Lyttle and Victoria Cherrie contributed.