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Digging for leaks
Workers dig in a corn field near Greenwood to repair a Lincoln Water System pipeline that runs from Ashland to Lincoln. Gaskets between the pipes failed and leaking occurred along one mile of the new water line. (WILLIAM LAUER / Lincoln Journal Star)

Workers are digging up sections of pipe along a one-mile stretch of a new city drinking water pipeline to fix leaky gaskets.

The pipeline runs from Greenwood to Lincoln and was buried about 1 1/2 years ago as part of a $23 million project to expand the capacity of the Lincoln Water System from 100 million gallons to 160 million gallons a day.

Lincoln gets its drinking water from wellfields on the Platte River near Ashland. After treatment, it's pumped about 30 miles to the city.

Gaskets that are not sealing properly are to blame for the leak, said Jerry Obrist, chief engineer for the city water system. He said the problem is in a 5,000-foot stretch of pipeline that was laid first as part of the 10-mile-long project.

Obrist said not all of the gaskets are leaking. Workers are digging a "cylindrical hole" down to the pipeline, which is buried 5 feet or deeper. If they find a problem, he said, they dig deeper and make repairs.

"It's good to find them now instead of later," Obrist said. "This is a normal process on any pipeline."

But Alan Hilt, a farmer who lives four miles east of Waverly and has sections of the pipeline on his land, believes it is anything but normal.

"It's totally unbelievable to me. It really is," Hilt said.

The pipeline crosses about 16 acres of Hilt's farm. The city has permission to use his land and that of other area farmers through long-term easements.

Water has bubbled to the surface and pooled in some places, Hilt said. Of the 19 leaks he knows about, eight are on his property, he said.

Hilt is upset because no one told him about the leaking gaskets before he applied fertilizer for next year's crop production - and they "ripped it all up." He's concerned that he won't be able to recover those costs.

Hilt said the land where workers laid the pipeline is not very productive because it was disturbed. Workers replaced topsoil after digging trenches, but Hilt maintains it takes years for the soil to recover.

"They tried to put the organic matter back," he said. "It's like comparing it to a broken leg - it's never right. It takes five, six, seven years to get the production back."

Obrist said the leaky pipeline has nothing to do with water seeping into the Waverly High School gym floor. Workers recently cut holes into the floor and dug deep holes to find the source of the water at the school.

"Our pipeline is on the south side of Interstate 80," said Obrist.

The high school is on the north side of the interstate.

Initially, plans called for installing gaskets on all of the pipeline sections in the project, Obrist said. Each pipe section is 60 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. After laying about a mile, workers discovered a problem with the gaskets.

"When you push the pipe together, the tolerances are so close that you roll the gasket ... so it wouldn't seal," Obrist said.

The gasket design was changed and workers welded every section of pipe, except the seventh, where a gasket was installed to allow for expansion and contraction of the pipeline, he said.

Obrist said he doesn't know the pricetag for repairing the pipeline, but paying for the work is the responsibility of the contractor and the pipeline manufacturer.

"The city will not pay anything at all," he said.

Hilt and other farmers can file claims with the city for damages, Obrist said.

The pipeline is not connected to the city's drinking water distribution system yet, Obrist said. After all of the joints are repaired, the pipeline will have to pass a pressure test.

After that, the pipeline will be chlorinated to remove bacteria and then tied into the city's water distribution system. He said that won't happen until early next year.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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