A key Atlanta water main break is now fixed, but a boil advisory is still in place for many, city says

Crews in Atlanta have completed repairs to a key water main whose break, among others, contributed to a huge swath of the city spending days without safe drinking water – though a boil advisory remains in effect for many homes and businesses “out of an abundance of caution,” officials said Wednesday morning.

Water service is “slowly being brought back online to allow system pressures to rebuild,” they said in a news release, following a vast, sometimes intermittent breakdown that began Friday and highlighted the decaying infrastructure criss-crossing a major Southern hub and many other major American cities.

“The past few days were a call to action for all of us,” Mayor Andre Dickens said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “Every city in America has aging infrastructure, and we will rise to meet this moment to ensure that residents and businesses alike have reliable access to water.”

A boil water advisory is still in place Wednesday for a portion of Atlanta from downtown to Midtown and across several eastern Atlanta neighborhoods after crews completed repairs to the broken water main at 11th and West Peachtree streets in Midtown, restoring water to nearby customers. The state Environmental Protection Division will notify the city when the advisory can be lifted – hopefully within 18 hours, the commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management said during the 10 a.m. news conference.

That timeline is based on a “incubation” period, Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. said. “We cannot rush that timeframe, nor do we want to. We want to ensure that we provide safe drinking water to our residents.”

Dickens thanked residents for their patience, acknowledging the “disruption wasn’t easy for you.”

“We are happy to be on the other side of it,” Dickens said, even as the boil advisory remained in place for tens of thousands.

“That said, I will continue to be out and about this week, continuing to do wellness checks on our senior facilities, as well as speaking with our small business that may have been impacted by this situation,” added Dickens, who has been criticized as slow to respond publicly to the crisis and his administration slammed as ineffective early on in communicating updates.

The mayor reiterated the city is developing a $5 million fund to assist affected businesses and a plan to enact recommendations made by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is helping evaluate Atlanta’s water infrastructure to tackle any vulnerabilities.

Wiggins acknowledged the city “will have more water main breaks,” but said the crisis that unfolded in recent days derived from a “unique set of circumstances.”

Indeed, no sooner had the city announced the repair in Midtown than its Department of Watershed Management announced another “interruption of water service” to the north, on Piedmont Road.

Crews had to turn off a 12-inch water main to make repairs, the department said on X, noting the outage “is affecting one apartment complex, and one hydrant.”

‘Our infrastructure is crumbling’

The city’s water difficulties began midday Friday, when the first two of a series of water main breaks emerged along two pipes that Dickens said were about a century old – one 36 inches, the other 48 inches. One of the failed pipes was installed in 1910, while another dated to 1930, he told CNN on Monday.

Dickens on Saturday declared a state of emergency as a string of breaks left parts of the city without water or under boil advisories and caused significant disruptions to medical and educational facilities in the city.

Emory University Hospital Midtown began diverting ambulances from its emergency department and transferred dialysis patients to other hospitals – though normal operations resumed Sunday. Atlanta Public Schools also canceled many of its summer programs on Monday and Tuesday, saying they would resume once water service returned.

Repairs on a break near downtown were finished Saturday, allowing the city to lift a far broader boil water advisory that had been in effect in the area since Friday.

“What we have found, in digging and digging and digging and looking at pipes, we are repairing pipes from 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and our infrastructure is crumbling,” Atlanta Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks said at a Monday afternoon city council meeting.

The US Army Corps of Engineers arrived in the city Tuesday to help “develop a plan to assess and evaluate our aging infrastructure,” Dickens said. But while improving the city’s infrastructure will help make repairs faster, Burks noted, it will not prevent future breaks.

Atlanta’s woes are part of a larger issue of aging infrastructure throughout Canada and the US, where more than 30% of water mains are over 50 years old, according to a December 2023 study from Utah State University. Failing water mains are on average 53 years old, the study noted.

In the US and Canada, around 260,000 water main breaks happen each year, costing about $2.6 billion each year, according to the study.

‘I wish we had done a better job’

Dickens conceded again Wednesday morning his administration had fallen short early in the crisis on clear and timely communication – a response to critics who’ve said the mayor could have responded more effectively Friday.

“I wish we had done a better job of communicating from Friday night on into Saturday morning,” said Dickens, who’s up for reelection next year.

Initially on Friday, the water main breaks appeared to be a “routine problem,” the mayor said – the latest of about 500 breaks or leaks over the past year. But each time one fix was in place, another leak would pop up, he said.

The city, Dickens said, was waiting to announce the issue as a whole had been resolved. Officials instead should have communicated those “false starts” and “setbacks” in real time, he said, adding it was a lesson his administration has learned.

“We won’t learn it again,” he said. “We got it now.”

A sign hangs along the Beltline trail in Atlanta's Reynoldstown neighborhood on Saturday, after water main breaks interrupted water service across the city. - Kate Brumback/AP
A sign hangs along the Beltline trail in Atlanta's Reynoldstown neighborhood on Saturday, after water main breaks interrupted water service across the city. - Kate Brumback/AP

The mayor also rebutted criticism of a trip he took Friday to Memphis, Tennessee, as the crisis began to unfold. Officials in his administration and scores of Watershed Management employees were working to address the problem at the time, he said.

The severity of the problem was not apparent to officials when the mayor left for Memphis, a city spokesperson noted earlier this week, and Dickens was gone for less than 24 hours, the mayor has said.

“When (I) go away from town, you still have (chief operating officer), deputy (chief operating officer), you still have a commissioner, you also have almost a thousand workers in the Watershed Management Department, you have teams of people,” he said, adding he’d stayed in touch with city officials by phone and virtual meetings during his trip.

“If the mayor of Atlanta can’t leave for 24 hours at any time, that’s a concern,” Dickens said. “We all can Monday morning quarterback; today, we’re here about the good news that water is running.”

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