Two water mains flood Hoboken – What’s next?

Council president says city may review contract with SUEZ

After last Sunday’s massive water main break left most of Hoboken without water, residents and businesses – who are used to problems with the city’s century-old infrastructure – made do with what they had and told a few jokes. Carlo’s Bakery, famous for its “Cake Boss” TLC television show, Tweeted, “We’re still open for businesses…You may not have showered but at least you’ll leave smelling like frosting.”
Others were more critical. Among the first to tweet about a loss of water was D’s Soul Full Café, a small sandwich shop at Ninth Street and Willow Avenue that’s been in business for almost a decade. “Anyone else not have water?” they asked Sunday morning. Later in the week, owner Stephen Bailey said over the phone, “Basically we lost an entire day, Sunday, which is our busiest day of the week.” The city and the Suez water company advised residents to boil water once it returned around 5 p.m. Bailey ended up closing up shop and losing over $2,000.
The problem began when a main broke on Sunday, Nov. 22, before 10 a.m., causing a loss of water to many residents in Hoboken and in the Newport section of Jersey City. It also flooded streets around the city’s southern entrance.

“I think a big part of it is changing the infrastructure.” – Stephen Bailey
While SUEZ worked to repair the valve, an additional 36-inch pipe broke and “disrupted a transmission main which feeds water from Jersey City into Hoboken.”
Mayor Dawn Zimmer announced on Tuesday, Nov. 24 that the city was temporarily using a Weehawken transmission line to supply water to the city.
“Hoboken has a backup water system and the system has been implemented,” Zimmer said at a press conference. “The boil advisory has been lifted…[The city] is open for business.”
While meeting with the media, Christopher Riat, the senior director of operations for SUEZ North America (formerly United Water), acknowledged Hoboken’s 100-plus year old sewage system was a major factor in the ongoing water main break issues.

Why they keep breaking

Hoboken has a long history of problems with flooding and its water systems. The south and west sections of town, most of which are below the water level of the Hudson River, flood during high tides and heavy rains. The city has an antiquated “combined” sewer system that backs up through the street catch basins. A “combined” sewer system is an old form of infrastructure in which the pipes carry both rainwater and water from residents’ plumbing to be treated by the Sewerage Authority. The same infrastructure hosts some of the pipes carrying clean water, meaning the passages underground are quite old, despite repairs and renovations over the years.
In 2010 there was about 21 main repairs completed by United Water, up from 10 in 2009. The highest number of main repairs was 37 in 1995, according to past stories in the Reporter.
SUEZ’s first solution to the Sunday water main break was unsuccessful.
“The complex line repair conducted to stop the flow of water into the transmission main was unsuccessful,” read a press release from city officials on Tuesday, Nov. 24. “However SUEZ is actively working on an alternative to reduce pressure in the system near the aqueduct in Jersey City. Once the repair is made to the broken water valve in Jersey City the water main break in southwest Hoboken will be repaired as soon as possible.”
At the time of the press conference, the SUEZ representative could not provide the cost of the fixtures and said the main concern was solving the problem.
Mayor Zimmer warned on Tuesday that even though water had returned by Sunday evening, there might be low pressure or boil-water advisories issued through the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
The boil-water advisory was lifted Tuesday, but on Wednesday, officials reiterated that it might be reenacted as repairs were made. Residents were advised to continually check for updates online. (You can also find the Hudson Reporter’s Tweets at @Hudson_Reporter.) The city said they would continue to supply water through trucks at various locations, and anybody commuting into the city was urged to take public transportation because of potential tieups near the southern end of town.
Another alert on the city’s website on Wednesday, Nov. 25 said “SUEZ emergency crews gained a foothold on restoring full system pressures to residents and businesses throughout Hoboken and Jersey City by stopping the flow of water being discharged from a 36-inch diameter broken valve at Newark and Harrison Streets…at approximately 3:45 am this morning.”
As of last Wednesday, construction crews are installing a new 36-inch valve.

An old issue

The circumstances of last Sunday’s water main break may seem commonplace by now, particularly after spring of 2013, when the city experienced multiple main breaks in a row. One of the breaks occurred when a construction worker struck a 30-inch main at a site near 14th Street and Willow Avenue.
At the time, Zimmer held a press conference to discuss how the issue was being addressed. She said that Hoboken is paying for investments that should have been made long ago. She noted that in 1994, the city entered into a deal with United Water to take over operations of the system. The water company gave the city money to plug budget gaps but, according to Zimmer, the deal allowed United Water to make a profit in the long term without reinvesting enough in the infrastructure.
“Our agreements with United Water do require that they spend a small amount annually in capital expenditures or repairs – $350,000 per year,” she said at the press conference in 2013. “About 80 percent of that is spent just repairing our broken mains, and there is little left over for infrastructure improvements.”
Around press time Wednesday, Councilman Ravi Bhalla said he would work with the mayor to address and possibly get out of that contract.
“What we’re seeing is the impact of a poorly negotiated agreement by a prior administration and chronic underinvestment in our water infrastructure by the company with which the city contracts with,” Bhalla said Wednesday afternoon over the phone. “As far working with the mayor and the City Council, We’re working to review legal options including but not limited to, re-negotiating or terminating that agreement.”
The mayor’s 5-4 majority on the council will grow to a 7-2 majority after the recent elections. This should make it easier for her to pass her initiatives, as certain types of votes – like votes for bonding for large-scale projects – require a six-vote “super majority.”
“I think a big part of it is changing the infrastructure,” said Bailey. “But making sure the improvements are made before all this new development comes in is more important.”

Man with warrant falls into sinkhole

Chief of Police Kenneth Ferrante said last week that the city had to station a police officer near the first water main break after a number of people went around police barricades and fell into a hole.
“Two bicyclists went around the barricades today [Nov. 24], saw the water was a little lower, and thought they could pedal through,” Ferrante told The Hoboken Reporter after a press conference last week. “Unbeknownst to them, there was a hole there.”
The day before, a Perth Amboy man who had warrants in his hometown plunged into the hole after he allegedly tried to drive through an area that was off limits. The man was issued three summonses: for operating in a closed roadway, for carelessness, and for fleeing the scene.
The two cyclists, who had minor injuries and refused medical treatment, were issued summonses for operating in a closed roadway. Ferrante did not say whether they were Hoboken residents.

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