SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Customers of the public water system here have the town’s fire department to thank for keeping their taps flowing Sunday and Monday.
Firefighters came to the aid of the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District around noon on Sunday after the second of two pumps moving water from Long Pond to the district’s treatment plant failed, leaving customers dependant on the supply remaining in the water tank. Crews set up the department’s 2001 Freightliner/Ferrara pumper on the shore of the pond, extended an intake hose into the water and began pumping water about 625 feet uphill to a hydrant that flows into the treatment plant.
As temperatures dipped below zero, firefighters rotated through the night keeping up the effort. High winds blowing ashore from the pond made their job even tougher.
“In the middle of the night, it was windy and rocking the truck,” Chief Jack Martel said. “We were getting some debris from the wind and waves.”
The waves were high enough that they lifted the strainer on the end of the intake hose, Martel said, causing the pumper to suck in air instead of water. The problem was solved when a firefighter donned waders and walked into the frigid pond to weight the end down.
Firefighters wouldn’t clear the scene until 6 p.m. Monday, after the district’s main pump went back online. The truck ran steady for about 30 hours and pumped “at least” 750,000 gallons of water into the plant, Martel said.
Steve Kenney, manager of the water and sewer district, said he owes a lot of gratitude to the fire department.
“They saved our butts,” he said on Tuesday.
Kenney wasn’t the only one grateful. After Martel posted a photo of the operation on Facebook, residents began showing up at Long Pond with muffins, cookies, pizza, hot chocolate and coffee.
“People were very nice,” Martel said.
Although the main pump went back in service on Monday evening, the source of what led that pump and its backup to fail wasn’t discovered until Tuesday morning.
Two divers went down in single-digit temperatures to inspect the 200-foot-long of pipe that brings water from the pond to the pumping station. They found the pipe had separated about 80-100 feet from shore. As a result, the end of the pipe sank to the bottom.
“It sucked all that debris off the bottom,” Kenney said of the pump.
After the main pump failed, Kenney and technicians found the pump itself clogged with leaves and sticks. That same problem led to the shaft breaking on the auxiliary pump when it was put into service on Saturday, Kenney said.
Eventually, the entire length of the intake pipe will have to be redone, Kenney said. As a temporary measure, divers will place a screen of some type at what is now the end of the intake pipe.
Kenney theorizes that the pipe separated as the result of a loss of electric power on Friday morning. The pump was moving 500 gallons of water a minute, and when it suddenly stopped, the impact of the moving water in the pipe was enough to cause it to separate, he said.
The amount of water pumped by the fire department was enough to keep levels in the water tank from dropping, Kenney said. The time of year was a factor.
“If this was summer, we would have to have done a lot more to keep up with the water demand,” he said.
Before the fire department came to the rescue, Kenney tried to rent a portable pump but was unable to locate one with enough capacity on short notice.
Martel said about a dozen firefighters contributed to the effort. They might have fared better than the 15-year-old pumper, which was thawing out in the fire station on Tuesday. The pump is scheduled for a full service due to how long it was in operation, he said.
Updated Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 11:24 a.m.