Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 continues to investigate the July 12 water transmission line break that sent three cities reeling into conservation mode and shut down one of the world’s largest military installations.
Jerry Atkinson, WCID No. 1 general manager, said the district is working with attorneys who instructed them to withhold some information about the investigation, including the name of the contractor or subcontractor responsible for the break.
Although Atkinson said he couldn’t release the name of the contractor, several sources confirmed it was Killeen-based Purser Construction, which did not return calls for comment Friday.
Atkinson said because of legal issues he can’t say whether fines will be issued, but said “the district will recover 100 percent of its loss.” He declined to clarify how the loss would be recouped.
The break was caused when a contractor trenching near Sparta Road, just outside of Belton, hit a 48-inch water transmission line July 12 — a break that left WCID No. 1 producing a quarter of its capacity. The 29 million gallons of water lost from the break sent Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove and Fort Hood into the highest levels of their respective conservation plans July 13. Several areas were under boil-water notices, Fort Hood closed to everyone but mission-essential personnel and restaurants in Cove lost business as water ran out. To put the water loss into perspective, Atkinson said the average person uses between 100 and 130 gallons of water per day.
Atkinson said although he can’t go into details regarding the investigation into the break, he believes “a lot of miscommunication” is to blame.
“Better communication probably would have prevented the accident,” he said. “This is the first time that I can remember, or anyone in this district can remember, a contractor hitting our water line. So, we’ve got to get back to communicating like we did before.”
The Herald last week requested all documents regarding the investigation from the district, as well as the name of the contractor or subcontractor involved. Atkinson said “none of that is on paper.”
“All of this is done by telephone conversation,” he said. “We don’t have any documentation as to whether we made official requests for this or that.”
Not in 811 database
As previously reported, the contractor responsible for the break called Texas 811 — a “call before you dig” damage prevention organization — before trenching. However, WCID No. 1 water lines aren’t listed in the system and they aren’t required to be.
Bell County Precinct 2 Commissioner Tim Brown said in this situation, as new information is received, everyone is “learning as we go, because this surprised all of us.”
“As I understand it, the contractor did everything that he is required to do, and customarily would do,” Brown said. “They called (Texas) 811 and had a search marking all the utilities, but of course in this circumstance, the water line was simply not on anybody’s database and they didn’t catch it.”
The 1998 bill requiring particular entities to register also allows sewer and slurry lines to go undocumented in the one-call system.
Mike Losawyer, Texas 811 president, said although he isn’t certain why some lines are exempt from registration requirements, he understands that “when the law was written, lobbyists worked hard to keep certain industries from having to register.”
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said the issue is one the Legislature is “certainly going to have to explore.”
“Of course, there is a considerable cost to (getting the lines in the system). If those things aren’t on a database already, then there are considerable legal and personnel costs to accomplishing that,” he said. “So, we have to weigh the cost-benefit analysis. I think especially on the major service lines ... at least those lines certainly need to be clearly marked.”
Aycock said lawmakers will have to “proceed carefully” to reach a reasonable conclusion regarding what should be required.
Losawyer and Bell County Precinct 1 Commissioner Richard Cortese agreed the lack of regulations will have to be discussed by the Legislature in its next session, which begins in January.
“We advocate everyone being a member and registering with us, but until they are legally required to do so, there isn’t much we can do,” Losawyer said.
Brown said he believes the law needs to be updated to bring some entities into the system.
“The problem is that there is just a gap in information out there,” he said. “I think it really boils down to a fundamental question about the whole system and who is in it and who is not. It’s something we need to do some more research on and then work with the Legislature to try and bring about a fix.”
Atkinson said Texas 811 “has nothing to do” with the break, and typically not being registered with Texas 811 isn’t a problem.
“We (have) transmission lines, big ones. We don’t have any small pipes, none,” he said. “They run from one part of the county to the other, and every one of our lines are in a dedicated easement that plainly says ‘WCID No. 1 easement’ and it was so in this case as well.”
Atkinson said the easements and water lines are marked on deeds and surveys and come up in plan review “in every case.” However, in this case, something went wrong. Atkinson said the district still doesn’t know all the details of what went awry.
The break happened just after 2 p.m. July 12. However, residents in the affected cities were still watering lawns, car washes were open and restaurants were serving water and operating at full capacity.
It was 4:55 a.m. July 13 when the first news release was issued by Copperas Cove instructing residents to limit water usage to essential needs only. The municipality went into the highest state of its water conservation plan, and restaurants were instructed to refrain from using city water.
At 7:55 a.m., Killeen issued a news release saying the city entered its highest stage of water conservation, and city pools and car washes were closed.
Killeen spokeswoman Hilary Shine said City Manager Glenn Morrison and Mayor Scott Cosper were notified about the break by the water district July 12 in the afternoon.
“Upon notification, the city had discussions with Bell County WCID No. 1 about a course of action and evaluated our water supply through the night to determine what steps the city would take,” she said. “By daybreak Sunday morning, the city determined water restrictions would be necessary.”
At 12:21 p.m. July 13, Fort Hood said the installation was moving into its most critical stage of water conservation as well. At 7:33 p.m., Fort Hood officials decided to close the installation to everyone who wasn’t mission-essential.
On July 14, Copperas Cove, Fort Hood and the southwest portion of Killeen were all under boil water advisories as supplies ran out.
Ready to respond
Atkinson said the district was prepared for a crisis, allowing it to be back up and running within 30 hours of the break.
“We’re back up, we’re running, we’re doing our after-action review,” he said. “I think those are positive things we’re doing.”
Had the district not had a plan in place to address a major leak, or break in the line, the areas it serves could have been without water for much longer.
“We had our plan in order and our pipes in the yard,” he said. “We were prepared for a water break, very well prepared. We did the very best we could.”
Atkinson said the district already ordered new pipes and materials to replaced what was needed for the repairs.
He said the district also is in the process of completing an “after-action review.”
“(It will) tell us how well we responded,” he said. “When the (review) is complete, then we will bring all of the entities together and we will tell them what we discovered and if we have any recommendations for changes of the way we operate or the way they operate.”
He said the review should be released sometime in the “next couple of months.”
FME News Service contributed to this report.
Contact Natalie Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7555