After eight to 11 city water lines broke in several sections of Portola last Thursday and left many residents without water, city crews rushed between the breakages to restore water service, even though it meant breaks went unresolved at first and water continued to flow.
Even afterward, city staff held its breath until water quality tests returned Saturday afternoon, confirming the restored water had not been contaminated and would not require further action, such as boiling or chlorination.
The breakages began appearing Thursday morning throughout the city. Public Works worked into the evening, and by 9:30 p.m. Public Works Director Todd Roberts believed water had been restored to the entire city.
It turned out not to be the case. The hospital and residents behind the high school and adjacent to the Woodbridge project had been without water the entire night.
Hospital personnel were called in early to deal with the impact to patients and City Manager Jim Murphy met with hospital staff.
Roberts concluded it was a pressurization problem and after re-pressurizing the lines, water service was restored.
Eastern Plumas Health Care's Chief Executive Officer Tom Hayes reported there had been no negative impacts on patients.
"We're set up to handle these kinds of things," he said. He said the hospital had continued to boil water until test results came back clear.
Roberts communicated with the state department of public health early on, and Murphy informed Plumas County Environmental Health's Jerry Sipes, waiting to know if a boil water notice was required.
Sipes relayed the all clear Saturday and said his department "has no further requirements related to this episode, and no water user precautions are necessary.
"I understand the users in the south part of the city may notice some slight chlorine residual (possibly a slight taste or odor), which is not typical of this part of the system during this time of year. This was because city staff was very proactive and connected an emergency chlorinator to disinfect this part of the system in case the same results were not favorable.
"Fortunately, further disinfection will not be needed."
The water emergency did give the city an opportunity to identify some of its weaknesses in an emergency: the after-hours answering service was inundated with calls from upset residents and could not keep up. Insufficient communication between the city and Eastern Plumas Health Care that resulted in an overnight outage is also likely to be addressed in the future.
On the whole, Murphy congratulated his staff. "All city staff worked as a team together in addressing this problem proactively and did a commendable job."
Roberts blamed the breakages on earth movement, coupled with very old pipes "What else could have caused so many breakages in so many different parts of the city?"
Murphy reported a 2.1 earthquake occurred 30 miles south of Portola at 10 a.m., but acknowledged that an earthquake that small was unlikely to cause damage.
A much larger earthquake - 4.2 - happened 50 miles away at Pyramid Lake two days previously.
Murphy offered an alternative cause, suggesting the work at the high school on the new cafeteria, which has involved moving valves and changes in water pressure, might be a cause.
Construction workers contributed to the public's concern about water flowing through the streets when it drained the school's water tank and the water ran down Nevada Street. While it alarmed the public and added to the number of calls into city hall, the water was unrelated to the breaks.
Several breaks are along one line and Roberts has requested funds to replace two separate 1,000-foot sections. The next city council meeting will address the request.
Currently, the major breaks are repaired, although several small ones are still waiting for city crews to get to them.
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