The City of Atlanta water-system failure on Dec. 3 was not only the result of a computer glitch at the pumping station - as the city said at the time - but it was also related to an even deeper problem within the system—massive and expensive underground water leaks that have troubled the city for years.

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The Commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management says that the city’s network of antiquated, leaking pipes played a role in the temporary shut-down of the Hemphill pumping station in NW Atlanta. The brief shut-down forced the entire city to go on a boil-water alert for more than 24 hours due to lower pressure that caused concerns about the potential of contaminated water pouring out of the taps.

Commissioner Kishia Powell disclosed last week to members of the city council’s utilities committee that what happened that morning of Dec. 3 all goes back to the city’s underground pipes falling apart.

An internal audit by the city last year revealed that water losses from the old, leaking pipes amounted to “about 30 percent of [the city’s] annual water production," totaling an average of 9.9 billion gallons of water wasted every year.

“Aging infrastructure is the primary driver of real loss,” the audit says. 

“One of the main transmission lines serving the city was installed in the 1890s… [and] 2,600 miles of pipes, some of which are 100 years old” are resulting in underground leaks all the time all over the place, the documents continues.

“You watch the water run down the street and you’re like, nobody can even come and patch it,” asked a resident of southeast Atlanta in 2017 about the leaks on her street at the time the audit was being prepared.

“It’s really frustrating,” one of her neighbors added. “I think most Atlantans know we already have some of the highest water bills in the country.”

According to the city audit, that's partly because of all of that wasted, leaking water. Atlantans pay the second highest water bill among the nation’s 30 largest cities.

Commissioner Powell told council members that maintenance workers were calibrating water meters, getting ready for another water-leak audit, when something accidentally triggered a false alarm that temporarily shut down the pumping station.

“We’ve been trying to improve our accounting for water loss,” Powell said, “and in order to do that, we have to make sure that our metering infrastructure is always properly calibrated.”

It was just this past August when leaks in a 100-year old water pipe threatened to force the city to shut off drinking water to 65 percent of Atlanta – including homes, businesses, Atlanta’s airport, the fire-rescue department and hospitals.

The city was able to repair that pipe without shutting off the water, that time.

According to the audit, Atlanta since 2003 has spent $1.95 billion upgrading its antiquated wastewater system under a court consent decree, and, as a result, there has been relatively little money left - $350 million - to upgrade the city’s fresh-water distribution pipes.

And the audit says there is no active leak-detection plan in place.

Commissioner Powell said in response at the time that the city is working on a plan to upgrade the leaking pipes, but substantial progress is slow because of lack of funding.

Meanwhile, she says she’s working on making sure that there are no more false alarms shutting down the pumps.