Saugerties couple gets relief after water leak is finally found

(Photo by Christina Coulter)

A couple bought their home on Redwood Road two years ago, they said, because they fell in love with its backyard. Starting on February 9 this year, inexplicable flooding turned that backyard into a veritable mudslide, leaving town officials scratching their heads to determine the source of the rapidly encroaching water. On March 19, after days of digging out the thirty-foot length of a water main 449 feet behind the property, an excavation team found what they believed to the be the source leak — a broken 12 inch pipe. The homeowners, Yvette Valle and Phillippa Gibson, say that the flooding has diminished considerably since; their once-slick backyard has dried out, and parts of the lawn that they described as “quicksand” have firmed up.

“If it’s anything coming from us, we’re going to keep digging to make sure it ain’t us,” said Water Department Superintendent Mark Resso, approximately three hours before the suspected leak was found. “That’s why we’re here digging again today, poking around and trying to see what we can do for these people.”

The break was caused, according to Town Supervisor Fred Costello Jr., by a frozen pipe. Although the town’s pipes are buried four feet beneath the ground to prevent this, “sometimes the ground moves,” and over time the pipe came closer to the ground’s surface.

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Before the leak was found later that day, Resso said that in the 35 years he’s worked with the water department, he’s never seen flooding quite like this, and that the town’s metered water supply hadn’t shown the sort of significant increase that would indicate flooding. Town Supervisor Fred Costello Jr. said that all the traditional ways to locate a leak yielded no results.

“Traditionally, there are a number of ways to identify a leak,” said Costello. “One of the ways is to visually identify the water that is coming out of the ground…most of our leaks are identified that way. The second way is that someone identifies water in a neighborhood that is not normal…generally, by taking a test of that water, you can take a test for residual chlorine…It left us spellbound.”

A repair coupling has been affixed to the pipe — what Highway Superintendent Doug Myer described as “an industrial band aid.” 

Ultimately, the Town of Ulster water department was the one to locate the problem with their more sophisticated detection equipment. New York Rural Water did an inspection earlier in March that yielded no results. In the process of troubleshooting, the valve to the water main was shut off on March 17 until the afternoon of March 18; although town officials say doing so “made absolutely no difference,” the homeowners say otherwise, that the incoming water lessened considerably

Driving up to 36 Redwood Road early on the 19th, rivulets and small pools of water were lining the street. On a neighbor’s property, a small geyser of water spewed from an exposed pipe in the front yard. Faced with an onslaught of water, Gibson and Valle devised an elaborate, exhausting regiment to save their home. Every 20 minutes, an alarm on bleary-eyed Phillippa Gibson’s watch would blare, barely audible over the drone of a fleet of wet shop vacs. She would tie on a pair of rain boots; carefully stepping over a mess of hoses, she drained about 14 gallons of water into a sump pump in her basement. As she would walk, small amounts of water come up through the floorboards under her footsteps. That was routine, she said, since the ordeal began in February — the last time that she left the house or slept. In her backyard, a small moat with a fast-flowing stream of water coursing through it has been dug around the backend of the house; a retaining wall of rubber and gravel has been propped up against the home itself. Valle, an aspiring lawyer and current contractor, said that their pleas for help from the local powers that be had, until now, fallen on deaf ears.

“We have a mudslide coming and no one wants to take responsibility for the water,” said Valle. “Water and Sewer came out and said  ‘if there water has no chlorine in it, it’s not ours.’ Since [the first time the water was tested] he said the water didn’t have chlorine in it, [they] ignored us.”

Valle insists that “[the town] had all the indicators way before yesterday of what was going on.” Plumbers who came to the property, she said, detected damning chlorine in the water days before the leak was found. Valle believes that earlier chlorine tests taken by the town turned up negative likely due to natural filtration from sand and sediment in the ground. She noted that the closest catch basins were over 500 feet away on either side; Myer said that, although the implementation of additional catch basins on the road are being considered, they wouldn’t have contributed to this leak. “It’s like apples and oranges.” Town employees that came to the property over the course of the investigation, she said, insisted that the flooding could have been caused by a host of other things, like groundwater, a high water table or spring melt. Costello said that it will “take a couple days” to determine definitively if the leaking water main was the only cause of the problem and to rule out any of these other causes as contributing factors.

“That is all still to be determined,” said Costello. “Hopefully at this point, we’re going to be getting to higher ground, but that conversation is for later. We think we have eliminated any contributions the town water system was making to this problem — we won’t be able to say that until a few days from now…This one was unique — it didn’t follow the normal rules. It followed its own mind and it was a challenge to the end. We think we are ahead of it now but we won’t know for a couple days….”

Costello said that flooding incidents caused by a water main break occurred on the same property about 20 years ago.

According to Saugerties Village water superintendent Mike Hopf, officials have been searching since December of last year for a water leak that has been sending 80 gallons per minute — 100,000 gallons of water a day of the village’s typical daily rate of 800,000 — from the Blue Mountain Reservoir that supplies both the town and village of Saugerties. Town Water Department Superintendent Mark Resso and Costello insist that this leak is definitively not that source, saying that town and village water supplies, while they come from the same source, are separate and metered.

“My fiancée and I have a favorite saying: what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger,” said Gibson. “This ordeal has tested our very being and we have overcome every obstacle. We are very grateful to our friends who have helped us in our hardest times. We haven’t lost our sanity…we meditate, we pray…we kept it together because sooner or later, someone was going to hear us.”

Although the pair are still pumping water from their basement, they say that the flow of water has lessened considerably. They said that they are looking forward to “finally getting a full eight hours of sleep.”

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