Aging infrastructure, a shortage of repair workers, and a deep winter freeze were primary reasons for 43.4% more leaks in 2022, a pending list of 371 leaks at year end, and a 110% jump in emergency water shutoffs, according to Fort Smith Utilities Director Lance McAvoy.
Speaking Tuesday (Jan. 10) during a Fort Smith Board of Directors study session, McAvoy said the city had 2,575 reported water leaks in 2022, 779 more leaks than the 1,796 in 2021. There were 35,855 city water customers at the end of December, up 298 compared with the same period in 2021, McAvoy said.
The city ended the year with 371 leaks on the pending list for repair, and 338 leaks on what is called an inspection list. The inspection list is leaks that are reported but yet to be verified. McAvoy said about 75% of reports on the inspection list are not leaks or are not leaks for which the city is responsible.
The city had 430 emergency water shutoffs in 2022, well above the 205 in 2021, with 300 of those in December during the deep freeze that hit the Fort Smith metro. In December 2021 there were just two emergency water shutoffs. Likewise, there were 396 water leaks reported in December, compared with just 95 in December 2021. McAvoy said there were many days around the Christmas holidays that the utility staff was slammed with numerous leaks reported.
“I had supervisors on vacation … who left (their vacation), came in, got in a city vehicle and were out shutting off water as well,” McAvoy told the board.
He said part of the leak problem is an aging water system infrastructure, with one pipe replaced in 2022 being more than 120 years old. McCoy told the board the city still has more than 20 miles of galvanized pipe that was supposed to have been replaced 22 years ago.
“A lot of our leaks are on galvanized lines,” he said.
McAvoy said there were 420 water line leaks and 84 water main leaks repaired by city staff. He said more could be fixed if the department was fully staffed. The utilities department is budgeted for 40 water/transmission line repair and maintenance crew, but is operating now with just 24 workers.
Also in 2022, Forsgren, a Fort Smith-based construction company, repaired 396 leaks at a cost to the city of $1.136 million, or just under $2,900 per leak. The city in September 2021 approved a $3.07 million contract with Forsgren to help the city make progress on repairing leaks on the aging system. McAvoy said Tuesday Forsgren is being used for the more simple repairs because “we get more leaks addressed for less cost.” He also told the board he will at the next board meeting ask for a time extension on the Forsgren contract.
“We are using Forsgren to maximize our leak-fixing potential,” McAvoy said, adding that the extension would not cost more money because funding remains in the initial contract.
McAvoy also outlined other actions the department will take in 2023 to catch up on the pending leaks and address the aging infrastructure to reduce the prevalence of future leaks. The solutions include:
• Replacing more than 20 miles of galvanized mains and line, with a $10 million to 20 million cost estimate;
• Replace more than 63 miles of asbestos concrete pipe, with which there is not now a cost estimate; and
• Extend Forsgren’s contract to help the city address at least 230 repairs.
City Director Lavon Morton said after Tuesday night’s study session he is not happy with the pace of leak repair.
“I want faster action to repair leaks. I think we have suffered from some issues with staffing and that sort of thing that a lot of other organizations have suffered with. But I want a lot of emphasis on this area, because it is a problem when someone calls you with a leak, and six months later they call you back and say, ‘You know, no one ever showed up to fix my leak,’” Morton said after the meeting.
Morton said he sees potential in some of the solutions McAvoy outlined, but stressed he is a “believer in creative solutions in order to get the work done.”