Thirsty times: Hamilton’s water crisis

The water crisis in Hamilton can be linked back to several water line breaks (such as the one shown) and leaks caused by the severe and lengthy low temperatures from the previous week. This particular leak was on Military Street North, not far from downtown. Chemicals and malfunctions also later contributed to the problem.

By Luke Brantley
Staff writer
HAMILTON — The City of Hamilton is working to refill its water tanks and regain pressure in order to restore water service for city residents and rural residents who are also connected.
The water crisis began during the ice storm two weeks ago, when the drop in temperature began to cause issues with the city’s water lines, including several major breaks.
One of the most serious breaks occurred in a location near the Ragsdale Creek Bridge, where the pipe itself didn’t freeze, but the drop in temperature caused the ground to shift, which snapped the line buried there. Several million gallons of water were lost as a result, which drained all the city’s water tanks.
The city repaired the break as quickly as possible. According to Hamilton Mayor Bob Page, the city thought the issue was fixed by Saturday night, Jan. 20.
But on Sunday, it became apparent that something else had gone wrong.
Somehow, a line that feeds chemicals into water at the water treatment plant had allowed moisture to accumulate inside of it, which caused the treatment chemicals inside to crystalize and interfere with the treatment process.
The city called in technicians to repair the system, but similar malfunctions occurred again before finally being resolved.
“We just had a terrible sequence of events after the ice storm and all those broken pipes,” Page said. “The freeze took us all the way to the bottom, but the recovery has been delayed by these issues with our feeder that puts the chemicals in the basins where we treat the water.”
As of Thursday, Jan. 25, the city reported normal function of the treatment plant.  
The city initially put out a boil water notice, which cities are required to do if the water pressure in the system drops below a certain threshold, but that was later increased to a do not drink order due to the presence of sediment in the lines that was kicked up as the pressure began to increase again after the breaks.
“On Thursday, Jan. 25, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management came to Hamilton to assist,” councilman Ross Reed said during a video briefing on Saturday, Jan. 27. “After viewing things, the City of Hamilton was placed on a do not drink order. This was just a recommendation from ADEM. It was not a requirement, but it was a suggestion.
“So out of an abundance of caution, and the recommendation from ADEM, we were placed under a do not drink order. However, there is no evidence that harmful substances are in our water when it is treated and leaves the facility.”
Ross explained the water is still safe to use for washing dishes, laundry and showering as long as dishes were dried well, and caution was used when showering infants due to the sensitivity of their skin.  
Residents did begin to report any water that was coming through was either discolored, had a strange slime or film on the surface, smelled foul or a combination of those descriptors.
As of Monday, Jan. 29, many residents in Hamilton have been without clean water for just over a week. Many rural residents who live outside of the city have been without water for as long as 10 days.
Part of the delays for rural consumers comes from the way Hamilton’s water tanks fill up. The city can’t pick and choose which tank to fill when. Instead, it happens sequentially as water flows through the system based on elevation and fills each tank in order before filling the next.
That process can take several days to complete, according to Page.
Hamilton area residents expressed frustration over the current water crisis, which happened only a few months after another crisis caused by a dam collapse which introduced a large amount of sediment into the water that Hamilton’s water treatment facility couldn’t handle.
During a city council meeting on Monday night, Jan. 22, Page gave an update on the water situation to explain what had happened, and the council opened the floor for comments and questions at the end of the meeting.
Citizens there requested more transparency on the situation, as well as assurance of a plan going forward.

See complete story in the Journal Record.
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