08 March 2014

An open letter to Atenas and other interested parties:

The little village we live in, Atenas, Costa Rica, is in the Aguacate Mountains and is cut through and surrounded by numerous streams and rivers. Yet, they find themselves in the midst of a water shortage and at the mercy of the national water company, known by the acronym, "AyA".

To fix the water shortage, AyA, for some inscrutable reason, elected to draw additional water from an amazingly active spring, situated inside a public park, in Grecia, a city some 13km (8 miles) to the north as the crow flies. To move that water to Atenas, they chose to build a pipeline, up and down mountainsides, along and through roadways, across rivers, transiting areas of proven soil instability and within highly active seismic zones. The pipeline's length is unknown to me but it must be at least twice the length of the crow's flight line.

To build the pipeline, AyA hired a local construction contractor. The route of the pipeline generally follows along roadways. Due to the narrowness of roadway right-of-ways in Costa Rica, at many points along the route, the pipeline trench had to be dug into the roadway and had to switch from side to side, crossing right through the roadways at many locations. Traffic was quite disrupted, usually with no warning and often with seemingly no regard for any needs of commerce or personal usage of those roadways. (Most of the route's roadways are heavily used and they are the only practical way to get from town to town.)

At what looked like a snail's pace, the roads were torn open, pipeline installed, and dirt pushed back in on top of the pipe. Almost never was the road promptly repaved.

Gigantic potholes developed -- some large enough and deep enough to scrape the bottoms of small or low riding cars. At several locations, the potholes grew into networks of crevasses many meters across and long, causing even buses and big trucks to stop and then tiptoe their way through the "minefield".

As might be expected, the lack of water and the seemingly endless streets mess has stirred up the populace. Last night, there was a town meeting at the Lion's Club building. The word spread around that this was a meeting where the people could come and ask AyA and the Atenas city officials questions about the water shortage and the terrible condition of the unrepaired roadways.

A standing room only crowd showed up ... but not AyA. Immediately, the crowd was unhappy.

A couple of men took over a microphone at the front and spoke as if they were city representatives. They told stories about people in Grecia suing to keep Atenas from taking "their" water; environmental impact lawsuits; disputes over who was responsible (and when) for the roadway repairs and, blah blah blah.

Then, a number of very demonstrative speakers from the citizenry stood and spoke to the assemblage and these "officials".

Finally, a small young lady stood, went to the front and took the microphone. She spoke with total authority and sounded like an accomplished politician. She may have been the mayor of Atenas. She essentially restated what the men had said earlier but in a far more coherent and organized way. Then she thanked the crowd for turning out in a show of support (?) for all of the city's hard work.

We left the meeting because I think the good people of Atenas are missing the point. Settling the "who's water is it" lawsuit, fixing the roads and hooking up the new pipe isn't anywhere near the big issue. The big issue is that their pipeline isn't a good or long term solution.

As kind of an expert in urban water piping systems and the related technologies to keep water flowing at all times to the customers, if anyone had asked -- and they didn't, nor will they -- I would have opined the following:

1. Atenas is in a water shortage crisis now but in the future, should the new pipeline from Grecia fail to deliver, the crisis could be life threatening. Today, the shortage is causing neighborhoods to have their water cut off at different times of the day and night. Next step would be to prohibit non-commercial irrigation, such as lawn watering; and maybe shut down things like swimming pools and car washes. However, in perhaps as little as 10 years, a major disruption of the pipeline from Grecia (a very high probability -- see following) there will be a much larger population suddenly without anything coming from their faucets, for days or weeks, and no infrastructure or distribution system for moving water into the area via alternate sources or even by truck. As people start to get deliriously thirsty, things will get suddenly ugly.

2. The pipeline from Grecia is perhaps the LAST of any viable options they should have chosen. Many individual farms and many newer housing subdivisions within the Atenas Canton have their own water wells, proving that wells are viable. Why then did AyA go with the pipeline option? Probably the public will never know but AyA certainly stomped on a hornet's nest, as shown by angry citizen's meetings and a flock of lawsuits; and, they may have created a monster which could give them nightmares for decades to come.

Rather than drill one or more big, deep water wells right in town, feeding directly into major storage tanks, they chose to tear up the landscape at a terrible cost and bury a fragile pipe in some of the most pipe-inhospitable land possible. Apparently, this was also selected as the "best course of action" without crossing t's and dotting i's since they are now fighting or have fought many legal battles over this project.

3. The type of piping chosen was perhaps the worst they could have chosen. The pipe that AyA chose or allowed to be installed for this project is what we commonly call "push joint" pipe. It is cheap and assembles very quickly in the trench. However, it was designed and is meant for flat lands with excellent trench bedding (support) and zero earth movement.

Push joint means that one end of a section of pipe has an enlarged "bell" on one end and just a straight end ("spigot") on the other. The bell end contains an internal groove. That groove has a soft rubber gasket inserted into it. Then the spigot end of the next piece of pipe is pushed into the bell/gasket assembly a few inches. That's it. Nothing but the weight of the pipe and dirt covering it holds everything in place. If the ground never moves and the pipe is sitting on a carefully prepared bed of engineered sand and gravel and then covered by yet more engineered mixture of sand and gravel there are few enough construction-error leaks and few enough future leaks.

Unfortunately, none of the above-underlined requirements are the case for Atenas and the construction of this pipeline. Pretty much, where I watched this construction, they were ripping a trench through seismically active and mud/rock slide soil, tossing the pipe into that hole, banging the ends together and pushing the native rock/dirt back on top. Good luck with the results.

I also looked and never found any joint lube anywhere. It is well known in the waterworks industry in other countries that every type of pipe joint gasket or seal should be smeared with a proper food grade grease lest the sticky rubber hang up on or get cut by pipe-spigot imperfections, causing leaks.

Without diverging into all kinds of technical stuff, let me just say that there are many pipe joint designs out there which would have been a better choice. The contractor even showed up with an example of the MOST secure joint design at a location where the pipeline climbed a shaky hill and swung around a bend ... and used those joints at that small area. They seem to have known that push joints wouldn't have lasted a month at this particularly problematic spot.

4. The pipeline is constructed and buried but probably not pressure tested. That is a huge problem. I don't have the actual statistics in hand but a properly constructed push joint pipeline, in suitable terrain, will probably only have a construction-caused leak once per mile. To identify these inevitable leaks and fix them before backfilling and paving, at every few hundred meters or between each pair of installed valves, 1st world contractors will fill the pipe with water and pressure it up. That "hydro-test" is specified by the owning utility company or engineer/inspector to be held for several hours.

I may be wrong but in my looking around, I never saw any evidence of any hydro-testing being done. The entire pipeline is now buried and in quite a few locations, the paving is back in place. If this is the case, there will be re-excavations required and leak chasing done on the system for weeks if not months.

(Not to mention that the long delay in some locations between burial and repaving saw literally thousands of buses, 18-wheelers and heavy farm equipment vehicles banging up and down, in and out of potholes, directly over the pipeline. That causes significant earth movement -- especially newly disturbed earth like the pipeline's backfill. That movement can pull apart joints, pound the pipe against pointed rocks and generally stir things up as they shouldn't be stirred.)

5. The pipeline will break. That will cause an interruption of service. If they have an emergency repair plan and emergency repair materials in place, the interruption could be just a few hours. If they have no plan or materials, the interruption could be for weeks. Any pipe can break. Any joint can fail. "Stuff" happens. THIS pipeline WILL break and it WILL pull apart. Whether it happens due to questionable design, less than ideal construction practices or acts of god, it is only a matter of time.

But, remember, this pipeline and its being needed to deliver is very important already and will become critically important to the well being of Atenas in a few years.

A proper utility with proper planning will take this into account. They will have a plan in place to move men, machinery and materials to a break site within a couple of hours and be able to effect even a major repair over a period of several hours or, in the worst of cases, a day or two. Day or night. Holiday or not.

Why do I have an overwhelming feeling that there will be no plan? Why do I think that there won't be a warehouse with spare gaskets, a few spare joints of pipe, repair sleeves, couplings and all related tools?

6. With respect to distribution construction, maintenance and repairs AyA is operating with technology and methods pre-dating the mid to late 1800's. And, finally we reach my area of specialization within the water industry. It is this:

Since the time of the pharaohic-Egyptians (I proved this in court) people have known how to stop and repair leaks blowing out of the sides or the joints of water mains without shutting down those water mains. (Today, those repairs are made and then field-applied additional repair materials can make that weakened area stronger than the original pipeline.)

Since the mid-1800's people all over the world have known how to connect a new branch pipe to an existing water main without shutting down the water main. It is done now thousands of times per day with tools and fittings that a child can use.

Since the late 1800's people all over the world have known how to insert a new control valve directly into an existing water main without shutting down the water main. Today, it is probably done a hundred times a week using tools and fittings any plumber can use.

Knowing this -- and surely they must know this if they can breathe and read -- why does AyA, every day, simply shut the water off, without warning (and seemingly without a care) to effect basic leak repairs, connections and insertions? And why do the Costa Rican people stand for it?

If you REALLY don't know of these technologies, AyA, contact me. I will donate my knowledge to you. For a few good cups of coffee I might even do some training.

Finally, a health warning: I have watched several AyA distribution piping repairs/modifications. In the Atenas area, they seem to take no steps to ensure that materials and practices keep possibly deadly contamination from the water.

At one particularly egregious site, I watched as a repairman worked with the open piping submerged in a soup of muddy water which certainly contained at least horse, cow, dog and cat feces. Then that repair area was closed up, still submerged, with repair piping also full of the same "germ soup." Once they turned the water back on, somebody received a "little gift" that day through their water pipe.

I hope (trust?) such behavior couldn't possibly be AyA policy but would sure like to know how their training system (?) could have let such behavior out onto the streets. How can this be allowed?

1 comment:

  1. Er, uh -- even the Roman aquaducts were borne of better thought processes.