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Putting the Lake in Lake Forest

September 17, 2021

Brown+water+gushes+from+a+hole+in+a+yard.

Samantha Cohen

A broken water main on the Northeastern side of the Lake Forest Neighborhood.

“I ran outside and saw a lake in front of my house,” said Adam Stanley, Lake Forest resident and Meramec parent. On July 31, 2021, a large water main broke in a homeowner’s front yard, sending millions of gallons of water cascading onto Lake Forest Drive. Neighbors could be found standing in their yards and on driveways, dressed in the remnants of their various Saturday afternoon activities, observing the explosive flood of brown water. The water flowed into the valley of the street and began to seep into the basements of several homes.

First responders from the City of Richmond Heights arrived but could do little to stop the intense flow of water. “Water mains can break at any time of the day and when public works employees may not be at work. If the break occurs at night or on weekends, the police and/or fire will report to the break to assess the situation. They will contact the 911 dispatch center and they will contact Missouri American Water to report the break,” said Chris Boyd, Director of Public Works for the City of Richmond Heights.

“They (the firefighters) told me when it was unsafe to be in my house,” said Stanley, “I was in my house with other neighbors, trying to save things off of my first floor.” First responders are an integral part of managing water main breaks.

Response time by Missouri American Water was slow. It took nearly an hour after the first 911 calls before any Missouri American Water personnel could be observed on the scene. It was almost an additional hour before the flow stopped and water was shut off to the neighborhood. As the lake grew, neighbors whose homes bordered the flooded street walked through each other’s back yards to reach their houses to survey the damage and parked their cars on higher ground.

“For the rest of the weekend, we were digging out of our basement, thinking that that was the worst thing that could have happened. But, 11 days after that on the 10th of August, a water main in front of our house, popped. And we had hundreds of thousands of gallons of water forcing their way, into our basement,” said Stanley.
Stanley’s twin 6-year-old boys, Nicholas and James, were playing in the recently repaired basement at the time. The boys were terrified by the sound of the basement windows shattering as the water began to rush in.

“All the blood left their faces. James, in particular, thought we were in really big trouble. They didn’t realize we could walk out the back of our house and find higher ground,” said Stanley. Adam and his wife Lucie moved their car out of the flooded driveway, quickly packed overnight bags for their boys and restarted the remediation process that had begun 11 days before.

“All the blood left their faces. James in particular, thought we were in really big trouble. They didn’t realize we could walk out the back of our house and find higher ground,” ”

— Adam Stanley

According to Missouri American Water, over 3000 water main breaks are repaired in St. Louis County alone annually. In St. Louis County, water comes from the Missouri and the Meramec rivers. That water is then pumped into treatment plants, where it is filtered, cleaned and tested to meet standards set by the EPA. After that, it moves to storage facilities and then into pipes and water mains underneath streets. From there it is pumped into our houses for us whenever we turn on a faucet, wash clothes or run the dishwasher.

“The main reasons that a water main might break are temperature extremes, pressure and soil conditions,” said Samantha Williams, a spokesperson for Missouri American Water. Low temperatures cause the ground to constrict, making the pipes brittle and more prone to breaking. High temperatures in the summer bring a greater demand for high pressure water. This pressure can sometimes cause brittle pipes to crack. Many areas, including St. Louis have components in the soil that are corrosive to certain materials that were used to make pipes in the past, making those pipes more susceptible to breakages.

Missouri American Water is the largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility in the United States. It provides services to towns and cities throughout the state. Missouri American Water, like all utilities, operates as a monopoly, with pricing fixed by a third party commission.

“Most people don’t know when there is a main break,” said Williams. When a main break is identified, either by Missouri American Water’s modeling and monitoring systems or by a customer notification, a troubleshooter is sent out to investigate the situation. Then crews are sent to shut off the water, repair the pipe and turn the water back on. After that, a remediation team is sent to repair streets and yards. However, for those with damage to their property, the road to recovery is much longer with many winds and twists.

The Goldmans and the Stanleys are just two of up to eight families in the neighborhood with significant water damage to their property due to the multiple water main breaks.

A previous water main break in 2014 also caused significant damage to the Goldman’s basement and totaled two of their cars. However, it was the slow pace of rebuilding that bothered them the most. “So they fixed it, but it was about 10 months from the time it broke until we received our final settlement,” said Michael Goldman, Lake Forest resident.

Missouri American Water is covered by Travelers Insurance which helps them to compensate residents for damages caused by water main breaks. But, this can be an arduous and often draining process for homeowners. “It took a long time for them to get here and to do the actual work. We were told to expect a call from a representative of the water company and a representative of the insurance company, but it never came. We were told to expect that they would organize the remediation group, and the construction worker on the ground is the one who ended up organizing it,” said Stanley.

The remediation process can take a long time, especially if there is a high level of damage. “We lost two feet of our drywall on the initial break and now even the ceilings had to come down. They had to dehumidify everything to keep the upper floors from buckling. It basically just completely devastated the basement,” said Stanley.

In the short term, people often cannot safely stay in their homes. “It really throws your life into upheaval. We were out of air conditioning for nine days. Which isn’t as bad as the Stanleys. They lost their washer and dryer too,” said Michael Goldman. The Stanley’s were out of their home for 15 days, as it was unsafe to live there due to unstable flooring and a lack of power, water and air conditioning, in the heat of the summer.

“This is a preventable crisis. Our world is going to be impacted a lot by natural disasters, so these types of disasters are the ones that we need to work on avoiding,” said Stanley. Preventing water main breaks is a complicated art. Most of that involves data collection, analyzing the number of breaks in an area and patterns that suggest certain pipes might need to be replaced sooner than others. Missouri American Water also has monitoring systems in place to monitor the health of their pipes.

Damage is caused to a homeowner’s driveway and front yard by a water main break. (Alex Cohen)

Damage from water main breaks is not limited to personal property. City property such as roads can also be affected. “We will close streets until MOAW is onsite if needed for public safety. We then work with the restoration contractors to make sure all infrastructure that is damaged from the water main break is restored to City requirements,” said Boyd.

“Infrastructure is one of those things that isn’t always top of mind. People rarely have an emotional investment into pipes in the ground versus an issue like school funding for example,” said Williams. Water is the cheapest utility, costing less than a penny per gallon in St. Louis County. However, this can also make it difficult for water companies to get enough money to repair aging systems.

Missouri American Water places markings on the ground to note the location and size of pipes. (Alex Cohen)

Despite all the struggles, shared frustrations can bring people together, and even bring out the best in them. “It does make me wonder about people who are not as connected or don’t have the same amount of time to deal with all the people coming in and out of your house or managing the repairs,” said Michael Goldman. Neighbors have rallied together to support the families most affected, and to advocate for a replacement of the water lines.

“One of our neighborhood trustees reached out to the water company and convinced them to move us up on the schedule to first quarter 2022, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Elaine Goldman.

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