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Fixing This Pipe Takes More Than a Plumber

Crews have one week to remove a damaged waterway that serves 1 million users.

June 09, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

In a brush-filled canyon north of Claremont, 54 workers are laboring around the clock to replace a pipeline that provides more than 1 million Inland Valley residents with water from Northern California.

The effort began Sunday at midnight when workers shut off the 8-foot concrete pipe, severely limiting water to more than a dozen communities from Claremont east to Fontana.

The pipeline also provides some water for 6 million people in Southern California.

On Tuesday, the team completed one of the most difficult portions of the mission, pulling the damaged pipe out of the ground, but not before a frustrating morning that included a series of setbacks.

Water districts have urged residents to take showers for three minutes or less and not water their lawns.

But because the voluntary measures were receiving only modest compliance, one district has shut off water to 350 users who failed to reduce their consumption, and other agencies warned Tuesday that they might do the same if usage did not drop.

The repairs must be completed by Sunday to avoid more drastic water conservation measures.

"We are constantly fighting the clock," said Eddie Rigdon, the Metropolitan Water District assistant manager who planned the campaign. "This is a significant repair, not a Band-Aid."

Officials are hoping the cool temperatures continue this week. Warmer weather would mean more water consumption and could result in more customers losing water.

Normally, such repairs are done in the winter, but an inspection in March found so much damage that officials decided to put in 44 feet of pipe immediately.

The 30-year-old pipe was supposed to last about 50 years, but this section failed early.

Workers began at midnight Sunday at Webb Canyon in La Verne. The crews came with three tractors, a giant crane, flatbed trucks loaded with steel and portable trailers that would serve as the command post.

After the water was shut off, crews stood by for three hours as the pipe drained. With spotlights illuminating a dry patch of dirt and the pipe nearly empty, two tractors began digging what would become a pit 25 feet deep.

At the same time, workers used the tractors to pound four large steel stakes into the ground to hold up steel retaining walls that would protect workers by preventing cave-ins.

By daylight Monday, crews had dug more than 12 feet deep and could see the bulky outline of the 13-foot section of concrete pipe they were to remove.

By sunset, crews working by hand had exposed the pipe.

At 6:30 p.m., specialists were called in to chip away a thin layer of concrete that covered cable wiring coiled tightly around the pipe.

The cable was used in the 1970s to help the pipe withstand the pressure of 450,000 gallons of water per minute, but testing showed more than 40 breaks in one section, officials said.

By Tuesday morning, it looked as if workers were ready to remove a large chunk of the old pipe.

Demolition crews had worked through the night, using a diamond-studded saw to cut through the pipe's 12-inch walls.

But they ran into their first setback, discovering a block of concrete under part of the pipe. So they used jackhammers to chip away at the block before the pipe could be hoisted away.

"We were hoping that wouldn't be there," said Rudy Loera, a Metropolitan Water District engineer.

By 11 a.m., officials thought they might get the pipe free by noon.

At 1:30 p.m., the cutting string on the saw broke for the second time in four hours, so workers used a jackhammer to finish slicing through the pipe.

By 2:30 p.m., the last of the workers had climbed out of the pit.

Nylon slings were wrapped beneath the top half. A flatbed trailer sat off to the side ready to carry the fragment away.

More than 20 workers huddled silently around the edges of the pit to watch the pipe come up. The crane hummed as its operator tried to pull it out of the earth.

On the first try, no success.

"Something's stuck," Loera said. "Maybe they didn't cut all the way through."

Construction manager Al Ubrun leaned on a railing with a furrowed brow and his chin in his hand.

Two workers went back down with jackhammers to make sure the pipe had been cut free.

The pipe wouldn't budge on the second attempt, so workers started a tractor and nudged it. On the third try, the pipe pulled loose and was placed on the flatbed.

Smiles appeared on faces all around.

"I'm very relieved to see it on that truck," Ubrun said.

An 18-foot section of nearby pipe is also being reinforced with carbon fiber in an operation that was scheduled to take three days.

By Tuesday afternoon, water officials were getting more good news: Several agencies said water conservation efforts, largely ignored at first, were beginning to show success.

Robert DeLoach, general manager of Cucamonga Valley Water District, said that on Monday his district shut off water to 100 excessive users, most of whom were businesses that had not turned off their landscape sprinklers. He shut off 250 more Tuesday morning.

"We got off to a rough start," DeLoach said.

But by Tuesday afternoon, he said, customers had reduced their water usage by almost 40% compared with Sunday.

But officials warn that the water supply is still in jeopardy, especially if the weather gets warmer or the project experiences more delays.

At his Claremont home, Rob Cherney said he and his family had filled several buckets of water for the plants before the shutdown.

"We turned off our sprinklers and have tried to reduce our time in the shower," Cherney said.

He said he didn't mind the inconvenience -- as long as it's temporary.

After all, he said, "It's just a week."

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