JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — Slow but steady progress that included the discovery of a large leak on an 8-inch line has Jonesborough’s water department set to begin restoring service to some customers in Bumpass Cove and Embreeville communities Thursday morning.

Thousands of the 13,000 customers have been without water since early Monday, when critically low levels caused by leaks large and small had forced system shutdowns.

Crews work on a large waterline leak discovered on Greenwood Drive Dec. 28. (WJHL photo)

“Finding that 8-inch leak on Greenwood Drive was big, but if things continue well, the Bumpass Cove area is the first area we will turn on,” Mayor Chuck Vest said in an afternoon news conference at Town Hall. The leak was capable of draining 2,000 gallons per minute from the system.

The progress came as the town’s main water tank on Persimmon Ridge had reached the 22-foot level, continuing to gain water slowly even after some downtown businesses had their service restored Wednesday morning. The tank needs to stay at or above 20 feet, which equates to about a million gallons, for the department to safely continue adding service back incrementally.

As communities have water restored, Vest expects the resumption of pressure to reveal more leaks, many likely on the homeowners’ side of the meters. The impact of that will determine the pace at which people are brought back.

“We’ll monitor that system and if everything’s good and it doesn’t affect our water loss in our tanks, we’ll move on to (Highway) 107 and then continue north,” Vest said.

Vest said Wednesday the water level problems and possibly some leaks were exacerbated when a critical pump station on Rock House Road was inadvertently included by BrightRidge in its rolling blackouts Saturday.

“That’s the only pump we have that sends this water up our main transmission line, so that thing being down for a period of time those first four hours just meant we weren’t pumping water into our tanks and yet we were using it … so our tank was dropping really quick,” Vest said.

BrightRidge said in a statement Wednesday that “any circuits identified by the Town of Jonesborough have been added to the non-interruptible list.”

The cold snap prompted the Tennessee Valley Authority to require 5 to 10% reduction by its utilities through rolling blackouts, which mostly occurred Friday and Saturday. When asked Wednesday about the Rock House station, BrightRidge didn’t specifically acknowledge whether it was overlooked, but said in an initial statement it “excluded critical public infrastructure, including hospitals, water treatment plants and similar facilities to the fullest extent possible.”

Regardless of the how, Vest said the lack of pumping at a critical time and other likely consequences from repeated shutdowns and restarts — he believes there were four blackouts — “didn’t help.

“That’s something ourselves and BrightRidge have made sure won’t happen again,” Vest said. “We shouldn’t lose power to our pump stations and that was an unfortunate mistake that I wish didn’t happen.”

Power outages at this pump station on Rock House Road in Jonesborough, Tenn. contributed to the town’s current water crisis. (WJHL photo)

For its part, Jonesborough didn’t have an automatic backup generator such as are common in some utilities and which might have averted the consequences of the pump station shutdowns.

Leaders will have time for assessment and review in the days and weeks to come, but Vest said the primary focus right now is getting the system back to full service.

“It’s disheartening for me to see that happening to people that we know and our family and friends who live out in that area,” Vest said. “But one thing we have noticed is that people are pitching in and helping each other, so out of this tragedy can come some good.”

The $70 shower

One of those people is Mary Lane, who lives in Embreeville with her husband Howard in a home they’ve occupied since 1992. They’ve had Jonesborough water for about 15 years of that and Lane said their pressure dipped considerably Christmas morning.

By Christmas night, their water was off.

We’re buying water, we’re buying hand wipes, we’re buying hand gel — it’s a big expense,” Lane told News Channel 11 late Wednesday morning.

The Lanes have taken advantage of the three gallons of daily free water distribution at Lamar School, but Mary Lane said that’s just enough to flush the toilet.

She also said by the time day three had rolled around, the Lanes went to an Erwin motel and paid for a room — slightly discounted — just to use it long enough to shower and get cleaned up.

The bill was $71.24 with tax.

“That was an expensive shower, but it was worth it,” she said. “I’m OCD clean.”

Vest declined to make any specific predictions on timelines for who gets turned back on when, though the Lanes may be among the lucky ones due to their location.

Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest discusses the town’s water issues Wednesday. (WJHL photo)

“It probably depends on how many (additional) leaks we find in each section,” Vest said. “We do expect to find them. Best case scenario is probably going to be Saturday to Monday for some people.”

Resumption process explained

An update sent late Wednesday afternoon said for people who are home, crews will turn water on. Unless leaks are detected, the water will remain on, while it will be turned off to fix any leaks that are detected.

When no one is home, crews will run 30 gallons or so from the meter. If it runs uninterrupted they will turn it off but start service. If there’s a problem detected, they’ll leave a door hanger and come back out when called by the customer.

In addition to addressing leaks, the department will keep close tabs on the tank level and won’t let service resumptions race ahead of water availability.

“I went to bed (Tuesday) and knew we needed to get to 20 (feet), but truthfully I thought if things were going well we’d get well beyond that,” Vest said.

“It didn’t gain as much as I feel comfortable. Finding this leak on Greenwood Drive, 2,000 gallons a minute which is what we pump out of there, it should allow us to start increasing our tank levels a little bit faster than what they were before.”

Answers may take awhile; some may never come

It’s unlikely the post-crisis assessments will be able to pinpoint how much each factor — issues with Jonesborough’s own infrastructure, the impact of the pump station power loss, and the breaks and leaks that would have occurred regardless due to weather — has contributed to the whole.

Asked whether the town’s infrastructure had fallen behind its growth Wednesday, Vest didn’t move much off the line Town Administrator Glenn Rosenoff and water director Kevin Brobeck drew Tuesday.

He said other municipalities “are having the same issues as Jonesborough,” adding “some of our sister utilities to our west are almost completely out.”

Vest did say town leaders were discussing water system improvements a year or two ago.

“We knew that we needed the updates and we’ve got to plan on investing over $40 million at a new plant and new transmission lines, but of course those things take time, and replacing old lines takes time,” he said.

But Vest also said the blackouts that impacted Rock House pump station “didn’t help the situation and made it a greater challenge for us. Without that I don’t think we would be in the situation we are.”

One possible consequence from the shutdowns at the pump station would come from an effect called “water hammer.” If the water that had already been pumped up the transmission lines was pressing back toward the pump station — due to gravity — when the pumps kicked back on, the newly pumped water and the backflowing water would collide.

One result of water hammer is a pressure surge that can travel through the affected piping system, stressing the material and potentially leading to ruptures.

“Every plumber and water line person I’ve talked to, it’s never good when you have pumps get turned off and on because it can damage lines,” Vest said. “So that’s something in the future I’m sure between us and BrightRidge, and hopefully TVA doesn’t mandate those kinds of blackouts.”

Vest stressed that no one yet knows whether a water hammer effect led to more leaks or breakages than otherwise might have occurred.

“It’s one of those possible scenarios that made a bad situation worse. But we’ll probably never know that, we just know we have a lot of leaks to fix … it’s just unfortunate in Jonesborough we did get layered on that loss of power in our pump that made the challenge even greater.”