SOUTH PORTLAND – The Portland Water District is investigating the cause of six water main breaks in the city in the past two weeks, including one Thursday night that damaged nearby businesses.

The six breaks since Aug. 25 — nearly half of the 13 water main breaks in South Portland this year — all have occurred in the east side of the city, on Broadway, Hinckley Drive, and Hill, Ocean, High and B streets.

While the water district regularly looks into the cause of water main breaks, the investigation begun Friday will be done “more thoroughly to see if there is anything unusual happening in South Portland,” said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District.

The water district deals with an average of 100 water main breaks a year. This year, there were 66 leaks and breaks through the end of July, compared with 88 in the same period last year, said Clements.

In South Portland, the district will look for the cause of each break and try to determine whether they are related, Clements said. It will try to determine whether there were unusual fluctuations in water use — which can create pressure that breaks pipes — and the acidity levels of the surrounding soil.

High levels of acidity can cause pipes to erode more quickly than normal, something the district tries to combat by wrapping new pipes in protective plastic sleeves, Clements said.

Investigators also will look at external factors, such as construction or fire hydrant use that could cause significant increases or decreases in water use and pressure in the pipes.

Clements said it’s difficult to correlate breaks with particular construction projects. Two of the water main breaks, on Ocean Street and Hinckley Drive, are within a half-mile of a highly visible infrastructure project in the Knightville neighborhood.

During construction, water isn’t cut off to the whole area, just to the sections of pipe being replaced, according to the water district.

This year, the district is replacing water mains on Cottage Road and Ocean and E streets in Knightville, in an ongoing effort to maintain the aging system.

The program replaces pipes based on frequency of leaks in an area, and the age and type of pipe. The program has a $3 million budget for replacing two miles of the district’s 1,000 miles of pipes each year.

The age of the pipes can contribute to breaks, but it isn’t the only cause, Clements said. While the 12-inch cast iron main that broke on Broadway was installed in the early 1900s, the 8-inch main that broke on Hinckley Drive dates only to 1999.

“If they’re put in in the early 1900s and there’s no problem, we don’t go digging it up,” Clements said.

City Manager James Gailey declined to comment on the water main breaks.

The water main on Broadway broke just before 7 p.m. Thursday in front of Events on Broadway and The Grille House. The road was closed briefly, then opened to single-lane traffic through 3:30 p.m. Friday.

Police Lt. Frank Clark said delays in the area weren’t excessive, largely because drivers heeded the police department’s advice to avoid the area.

The water main break flooded half of 740 Broadway Plaza. A restaurant, yoga studio and an empty storefront in the building closest to the break were flooded, but the second building in the plaza was untouched, said Claude Gaudet, property manager for L&J LLC, the South Portland company that built the plaza four years ago.

“It was just a slimy mess,” Gaudet said.

Gaudet and the owners of the damaged businesses said Friday that it was too soon to estimate the cost to repair the damage, but all have insurance.

Tom Howard, owner of J.P. Thornton’s Bar and Grille, said he had to get about 60 customers out of the restaurant Thursday night when water began pouring in through the doors and floor drains.

“It was literally a river,” he said Friday while he waited for city and state health inspectors to arrive.

Howard said there was at least 2 inches of standing water in the restaurant. After evacuating the restaurant, his employees had to throw away take-out orders that customers couldn’t pick up.

“I was in the middle of a huge dinner rush,” he said. “Then it was a mass exodus.”

On Friday morning, Howard walked through his restaurant, pointing to puddles in corners and piles of sand left behind the bar when the water receded. Half-empty glasses crowded the bar and bus buckets contained unwashed dishes because, with no water, employees couldn’t clean up before they left.

Water was restored to the plaza early Friday morning, but Howard said he wouldn’t clean up until health inspectors provided guidance on what work would have to be done. He will have to replace the restaurant’s new carpeting and repair damage to the walls, which could take two weeks.

Two doors down, the owners of Greener Postures Yoga met with representatives of their insurance company while a Servpro crew power-washed floors, disinfected surfaces and moved furniture.

The crew began work Thursday night shortly after the water main break, tearing up half of the studio’s bamboo floor and cutting several inches from the bottom of the wallboards.

Danielle Toolan, who owns the studio with Heidi MacVane, was teaching a yoga class with about 30 students when the break occurred, but didn’t know at first that the business was flooding because the studio floor is slightly elevated.

An employee who opened the lobby to prepare for the next class found a couple of inches of water on the floor, said Kelly Casey, who does marketing for the yoga studio.

MacVane said they initially focused on getting people out of the building safely, then began figuring out what had been damaged. Laundry baskets, trash cans and other items on the floor had to be thrown away, but furniture wasn’t damaged, Casey said. The business could reopen as early as next week.

When employees arrived at the studio Friday morning, a student wearing rubber boots was waiting out front to see if she could help clean up.

“It makes you realize what this place means to South Portland,” Casey said. “It makes your heart feel full.” 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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