Nacimiento water pipeline shut down due to leaks

Water levels remain low at Nacimiento Lake.
Water levels remain low at Nacimiento Lake. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Nacimiento Water Project pipeline, billed as the saving grace to many local communities’ dwindling water supplies, has been shut down and under investigation for the past several weeks because of leaks.

The five community partners that bought into the pipeline have received only a small fraction of the water they requested in June and none in July. The $176.1 million pipeline was designed to boost water supplies for Atascadero, part of Cayucos, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Templeton by drawing from Nacimiento Lake.

Officials with the partner agencies told The Tribune on Thursday that while they’re disappointed at not receiving their water, no community is facing a water crisis yet because the lake is just one of several water sources they use.

“We would want to use the Nacimiento water right now because that’s a contractual right,” said Wade Horton, San Luis Obispo’s water division manager. “We can’t carry it over. So you use it or lose it. And we would prefer to be using it during the drought right now instead of our (reservoir) storage.”

However, there will be something to worry about if the leak issue drags on into next summer.

“We’re OK to (not) get this year … but the concern is going into the next year, and if there’s another year of drought, will we have enough water at that point?” county 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham said of the pipeline problems.

Meanwhile, county officials Thursday afternoon said they’ve found a way to temporarily patch the leaks in the coming weeks and get the water back online this summer while working toward a permanent fix long term.

Getting the water back online as soon as possible is important, Paso Robles city water resources manager Christopher Alakel said.

While the treatment plant Paso Robles needs to make the lake water drinkable is still under construction, the city has been using its pipeline allocations to recharge wells. The city does that by filtering the lake water into a pooling system on top of the Salinas riverbed to offset summer shortages. Losing that ability during the hot months of June and July has been tough.

“Not having Nacimiento water is impacting our ability to utilize our underflow wells,” he said. “We’ve had to hold back production of those wells significantly as well as having to rely more heavily on the deep groundwater basin to make up for the lack of Nacimiento water.”

Suspicious seepage

Touted as the county’s largest public works project ever, the Nacimiento Water Project was designed to deliver millions of gallons of drinking water through a 45-mile pipeline and associated pump stations from west of Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo.

Construction finished in 2010, and the lake water started flowing to many residents and businesses in 2011. Since the end of July, the county has spent $134,000 on emergency contract work to investigate the problem, where one suspected leak has grown into at least five.

“The investigation will show if (there was damage at installation), if there was faulty material used or a problem with the weld,” said Mark Hutchinson, the county’s deputy director of public works.

The issue lies in a section of steel pipe, 30 inches in diameter, deep in the ground under the river at the Nacimiento River crossing on Camp Roberts near San Miguel.

A few weeks ago, county workers discovered the leak when they saw water seeping up on an access road near the Nacimiento River. The county received approval from the Board of Supervisors to hire excavators and divers to dig as much as 20 feet down, cut into the pipeline and use a video camera to find the leak.

A leak was found and patched. But then a subsequent pressure test failed.

“So they went back in and found at least five more cracks in that piece of pipe,” Hutchinson said.

Sacramento-based Teichert Construction, already marred by the deaths of three pipeline workers in two separate incidents during the pipeline’s construction, was the county’s main contractor on the project. It subcontracted to a firm called The HDD Co., according to county records, to install the pipe at two river crossings.

That’s prompted concern for how the pipeline is faring at the second river crossing, located where it crosses the Salinas River, which crews plan to investigate next. On Thursday, work crews were finishing up at Camp Roberts and planned to move to the Salinas crossing to prepare for an examination of that portion of the pipeline, Hutchinson said.

“Our initial investigation into the causes of the leaks should wrap up in the next few weeks, at which time we may be able to put the line back into service and focus on developing permanent repairs,” he added.

Finding the cause

Initially, crews will patch up the leaks with a temporary fix. That short-term repair involves taking forensic samples of the steel used in the pipe, patching the leaks and closing the temporary access points, Hutchinson said.

Then, with the pipeline running again, the county will use consultants to analyze the steel pipe samples to identify the cause of the leaks, determine who is liable and develop a plan for a permanent fix, Hutchinson said. The cost of that plan wasn’t available Thursday.

Liability is the key issue, Mecham said. The question is “if there was a manufacturer error of the pipe itself or if it was the installation,” he said. “And once that determination is made, then whoever that is, they have to back up what they did.”

Hutchinson is also looking into the warranty on the pipeline work. It’s not clear how much water has escaped from the leaks, officials said, but the leaks have been characterized as being small enough that they didn’t show up on the pipeline project’s water meters.

“The leaks are small and are not causing any serious issues,” Hutchinson said.

Fortunately, water that does seep out goes into the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Not the first time

The pipeline has suffered two other structural issues since construction finished, according to the county. In August 2010, the pipeline was shut down for approximately eight months when a segment collapsed at its intake site at the lake.

Later, a dent and subsequent rupture was found in a segment of pipe near Santa Margarita, although a timeline and shutdown period for that wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

Teichert couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday but county officials said representatives from the firm have been at the river crossing with consultants and the county work crew analyzing the problem.