Southtowns residents are being asked to restrict their water use for another week, at least until next Thursday.
But this is short-term inconvenience is likely to be followed by more extended pain — in the pocketbook.
The water main break at the Sturgeon Point Water Treatment Plant is now pegged at over $1 million.
"This is, by far, the worst incident that's ever occurred with the Erie County Water Authority," said Earl Jann, the agency's executive director, Thursday.
Between 12 million and 15 million gallons of water are leaking daily out of a 42-inch pipe 2½ stories underground.
Though other water main breaks have caused temporary low water pressure, including the boil-water advisory last summer in Amherst, this water main break is far more difficult and costly to repair, he said.
"We're in the million-dollar range, no question about that, maybe more," said Jann.
The repair cost will have to come out of the agency's operating budget.
Most Southtowns residents have not experienced a noticeable reduction in water pressure, Jann said, and no boil-water advisory has been issued. To minimize the likelihood that this will become a problem, all Southtowns water consumers are urged to limit unnecessary water use, such as watering lawns and washing cars. Farmers are being asked to cut water use by 15 percent.
Crews have been struggling since Sunday afternoon to repair the broken the pipe, located just outside one of the plant buildings, since Sunday afternoon. More than 100,000 Southtowns residents depend on that pipe for water.
The broken, concrete-encased pipe is located 25 feet underground and wedged below both a larger water main pipe and a high-voltage electrical utility box and cable lines that had to be relocated, said Russell Stoll, an executive engineer. Workers also must rig support for the the larger, 48-inch water main located directly over the broken pipe, which cannot be moved.
Because the broken pipe cannot be repaired from directly overhead, crews had to excavate a wider hole and shore up the excavated sides with pilings and protective sheeting so that workers are not in danger of having loose dirt and shale cave in on them, officials said.
Most work is limited to roughly 12-hour shifts because the other 12 hours must be spent recharging the water system and filling tanks so that water can flow out unimpeded to Southtowns customers, agency officials said. During this period, water flows through the pipes at a higher rate and fills the excavated hole with water, which then must be pumped out for repair work to continue.
About 30 employees, contractors and engineers are working to fix the pipe, said Stoll. The repair is expected to run well into next week.
Though the cause of the break is not yet known, Chairman Robert Anderson has speculated that the break may be due to faulty installation or a flaw in the pipe. The age of the pipe is not believed to be a factor in the break, he said.
The Erie County Fair is unaffected by the water main break because it receives its water through the larger, 48-inch pipe, which remains sound, Jann said.
Though residents are being asked to curb water use, Jann said it's hard to detect any water savings by Southtowns customers. With warmer, drier summer weather blanketing the region this week, he said, Southtowns customers may be tempted to use more water than normal.
The water restriction advisory involves the following communities: the towns and villages Hamburg, Orchard Park, Aurora, Colden, Boston, Eden, Evans, Brant and Hanover and the villages of Angola, Farnham, Silver Creek, and the Seneca Indian Reservation.
Some Southtowns residents expressed surprise Thursday at the water restriction advisory, despite extensive coverage. One resident sent a reporter a photo of two opened, gushing fire hydrants on Oakwood Avenue in East Aurora.
Another Orchard Park resident, who asked not to be identified, said he had signed up for both ECWA's electronic billing and annual newsletter, as well as Orchard Park's emergency alert services, and neither sent notices.
He later searched his email account's junk mail and did find two emailed notices. The resident, who works in the tech field, said that based on the way the notifications were delivered, many email services would filter the notices as junk mail. The ECWA also issues text alerts.
The authority has remained in contact with both Erie County's health department and Erie County's homeland security and emergency services department. The county issued initial water advisory alerts from the ECWA through its ReadyErie app, the water restriction extension issued early Thursday afternoon had not been posted several hours later.