Water restored to thousands in Phenix City after miscue

About 4,000 homes and businesses in north Phenix City lost running water this morning after an apparent misunderstanding between the city utilities department and Columbus Water Works.

About a third of Phenix City’s water supply was affected after Columbus water officials opened a discharge valve during an annual meter calibration. The officials said they expected a valve on the Phenix City side to be closed — but that wasn’t the case, and scores of residents soon noticed they were without water.

“People were calling like crazy saying ‘Hey I was in the shower’ or ‘I was about to brush my teeth and I have no water,’” said Roger Conner, the Phenix City utilities director. “It was like opening a plug in a drain and draining the bath tub out. It was actually pulling water back from the system and spraying it into the river instead of going out to our customers.”

The miscue left utilities officials pointing the finger at their counterparts across the river. Conner said someone at Columbus Water Works “dropped the ball” by failing to notify Phenix City about the work they were conducting.

“Had they just called and said we’re opening this up, we’ve got to do this for x period of time, all we’d have to do is close one valve in our system and we’d have had no problem whatsoever,” Conner said. “Instead, they didn’t call and they opened up the valve and we’re sitting here wondering where is our water going?”

Cliff Arnett, senior vice president of Columbus Water Works, said officials “had every expectation” that the Phenix City isolation valve was closed.

“We have a shared water agreement with Phenix City and periodically we transfer water back and forth in order to keep the water fresh,” Arnett said, “and after that transfer takes place the valves are supposed to be closed.

“Hindsight would tell you, yes, somebody should have called, but as you know hindsight is 20/20,” he added. “In retrospect, you can be assured in the future there will be a call one way or another.”

Phenix City utilities officials began their work week with two ominous signs: Other than the flood of angry phone calls, officials also received an alarm from a storage tank signaling the depletion of more than 250,000 gallons of water within one hour.

Crews scoured the streets in search of water main breaks but came up empty.

“With that kind of volume, you’d have seen a geyser shooting up out of the street somewhere,” Conner said. “We knew that there was something bad.”

The crews then checked valves at various spots along the river and encountered the Columbus Water Works folks. Conner said the problem was fixed about 10:30 a.m.

“They failed to notify us that they were going to be over here,” Conner said, “and when they opened that valve it just started drawing water out of our system and pulled our system down drastically.”

Phenix City utilities officials now plan to open up fire hydrants to flush out large volumes of water that became dirty when the water backed up. “When the water gets that low on the lines, it stirs up the sediment that’s in the bottom of those lines,” Conner said.

No boil restrictions are in place, but Conner urged residents to use discretion with their water and to call 334-448-2880 with any questions.