HAZARD — City water superintendent Bobby Holland Jr. was on his way Wednesday morning to turn a valve that would shut off water to the southern half of Perry County. The city was on the verge of having no water to send to its 7,000 customers.
Just off Ky. 15 south of town, under the Fourseam Buffalo Road overpass, Holland saw water bubbling out of the ground and running down the middle of a coal hauling road. He had stumbled upon the source of a week's worth of headaches.
A major leak from a 12-inch pipe had gone unreported for about a week, he said.
"Water just running down the middle of the road," Holland said, shaking his head.
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The drain on the city's stored water, compounded by a freeze at the treatment plant and earlier leaks in the city of Buckhorn, led to a drinking water shortage and an emergency declaration by the governor Wednesday.
When the situation became unmanageable during the weekend, the city had to shut off water at the extreme ends of the system's 500 miles of water lines — Buckhorn in the north and Vicco in the south. Private and public donors gave cases of water, and the National Guard rolled in to install portable purifiers. Schools were closed.
Hazard's water tanks nearly bottomed out Wednesday morning. At 8 a.m., the city was making plans to shut down the whole system and to bring in leak-detection equipment and help from Kentucky American Water.
Instead, by Wednesday afternoon, Holland's crew had repaired the leak, the treatment plant intake had thawed, and the city was on its way to refilling the storage tanks.
As of Wednesday night, the problem was solved, Holland said, provided the weather doesn't cause more havoc.
Holland called his wife Wednesday morning. "She said, 'That's the most excited about a leak I've ever seen you,'" Holland said later as he and crew members took turns turning the wrench to fasten a new pipe fitting.
He said a valve malfunctioned, probably because of the cold weather. The pipe was several feet beneath the pavement.
Water treatment employees had spent days trying to figure out what was draining the storage tanks, officials said. Holland said cold winters always mean lower water levels because customers run their faucets to keep pipes from freezing — something officials said probably contributed to shutoffs and shortages this week.
Inspectors had walked or driven the Fourseam area, City Manager Paul Feltner said, but somehow missed the break. Based on records and reports, he estimated the leak started around Dec. 28.
Buckhorn, home to about 300 people, had been without water for more than a week.