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Rend Lake water crisis ends six days after initial breach Water -BYLN- BY HOLLY KEE

The past week is one that is likely to be remembered as the "Rend Lake Water Crisis."

The problem began on May 15 when a 36-inch steel pipe ruptured. That pipe is the main pipe that exits the plant.

"Every gallon of water that exits the plant goes through that pipe," said Larry Sanders, general counsel and assistant general manager of the Rend Lake Conservancy District.

Sanders said the rupture was on the bottom, "in a difficult place to reach."

Crews worked for 12 hours attempting to repair the pipe, but were unsuccessful.

Within the next 24 hours, it became evident that repair efforts would not work. At that time, officials began working on two options, replacing the pipe, a permanent fix, and bypassing the breach to keep water flowing while the main repair was underway.

Intercity Water supplies water to 30 southern Illinois communities that all sell to 30 more communities, affecting around 160,000 residents in six local counties.

Local communities responded to RLCD requests to practice water conservation beginning Wednesday evening.

Many of the communities had reserves in their tanks but those could deplete quickly with no water flowing in from Rend Lake.

Franklin County EMA Director Ryan Buckingham asked residents to suspend all nonessential water-related activities such as watering gardens, washing cars, and filling swimming pools.

By 5 p.m. on May 16, no water was flowing from Rend Lake to the communities served by Intercity Water. Those communities were relying on their reserves.

Just before 2 p.m. on Thursday, Marion Mayor Anthony Rinella signed an emergency declaration restricting the use of water in the city. That action closed local restaurants and evacuated hotels.

Johnston City residents lost water before noon, effectively shutting down businesses. West Frankfort discontinued water service that evening. Christopher shut off its water system at 1 p.m.

Benton Mayor Fred Kondritz was hopeful that his city's 800,000 gallon reserve would hold the residents until the repairs could be completed. Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi saw his city's 1.4 million gallon reserves quickly drop to around 400,000 gallons on Thursday afternoon.

Schools in the affected areas released students early on Thursday and canceled classes on Friday. Some of those schools, like Johnston City, will have to make up that day. Benton Grade School students are a bit luckier. Superintendent Steve Smith scheduled a teacher in-service at the end of year that will not affect student attendance days.

Along with water conservation, boil orders and burn bans were issued in most of the areas affected by the breach.

Most of those have now been lifted.

The crisis saw the best of its citizens. By noon on Thursday, many area stores saw their supplies of bottled water gone from shelves. Carbondale stepped up to offer people the opportunity to fill containers at its plant. Williamson County set up water distribution sites throughout the county, giving residents a free case of bottled water delivered by the Salvation Army disaster response team. Local officials and volunteers, like several Johnston City High School students from the student council and National Honor Society, showed up to help distribute the water. The City of Sesser partnered with local stores, to make sure its citizens had water at reasonable prices. La Fiesta restaurants in Benton and West Frankfort provided food for those working to repair the pipes. When donated pallets of water proved to heavy for local equipment in Johnston City, volunteer firefighter Greg Jennings didn't hesitate to bring in his tow truck from J & J Towing to help.

As the repairs continued, Gov. Bruce Rauner traveled to southern Illinois on Friday, stopping in Marion for a meeting with local mayors to discuss the situation before touring the RLCD plant.

"We have declared nine counties here in this region as a disaster area to make sure that all appropriate resources are made available from the state," he said.

Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson, Perry, Saline, Washington, White, and Williamson counties were all declared disaster areas.

Rauner said he was told that the pipe that broke was more than 50 years old. "These systems are old," he said. "That's what's behind the Rend Lake's bursting pipe."

Rauner cited the need for more ongoing and consistent infrastructure programs to replace aging systems before disasters occur.

Crews, including many local union laborers, were able to restore some water through the bypass around 4 a.m. on Friday. The main pipe replacement was completed about four hours later.

However, the crisis was not quite over.

"On Wednesday when the pipe breached, the plant had a large amount of water run through it before the pumps were completely shut down," said Sanders.

While employees quickly identified damage from the original breach, Sanders said it was suspected that more damage would be found when the plant came back on line.

"The additional damage has now been identified and crews are being assembled to make those repairs," said Sanders.

Just before noon on Sunday, the repairs had been completed, the water was tested, and the RLCD told its customers they could test the water in their tanks.

By noon on Monday, most boil orders and burn bans had been lifted and the areas affected were back to normal.

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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:May 22, 2018
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