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'All hands on deck situation': City of Calgary declares state of local emergency over water main break

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The City of Calgary declared a local state of emergency Saturday morning in response to the latest developments in a major water main break impacting the city.

Friday, city officials released an assessment that revealed five more hot spots require fixing, which they say will be done simultaneously using a number of private contractors in addition to city crews.

The early assessment suggests that it may take three to five more weeks to complete the repairs.

"The decision to declare a state of local emergency was not taken lightly, and it was done to ensure we are prepared for all eventualities in the drive to have this water feeder main restoration work done as quickly and safely as possible,” said Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek. “I am grateful to the Government of Alberta for endorsing this approach and offering their support as we address this critical water situation."

Gondek said the local emergency declaration was related to the repair process which might involve doing repair work on private property. not to the water supply.

“The state of local emergency is not linked to the level of water in the reservoirs.” Gondek said.

Late Saturday morning, Alberta municipal affairs minister Ric McIver issued a statement in support of the city's decision.

"Alberta's government supports the City of Calgary in its decision to declare a local state of emergency," McIver said, "as this step signifies the critical state of Calgary's water infrastructure and the work that must happen expeditiously in order to return to normal.

"A local state of emergency allows the city to swiftly procure materials and coordinate action for repair," he added.

"Alberta's government remains in regular communications with the city through the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), and directly with the mayor's office and we support the city in any way that is needed."

Reaching out

To help speed up the repair process, Gondek said the city has been speaking with municipalities across the continent to source parts, equipment and expertise. She added the city is also looking to the private sector, including companies from Alberta's energy industry, to help find solutions.

In the meantime, Gondek reiterated a plea for residents and businesses to reduce water usage during the crisis.

That includes allowing employees to work from home if possible, which she said could save people a morning shower and having "to worry about what they look or smell like."

The mayor had earlier pitched workarounds like no shaving and capturing rainwater in kiddie pools. On Saturday, she pointed to other tangible steps Calgarians can take to reduce water usage in the coming weeks, such as reducing the number of times they flush their toilets each day.

"The truth of the matter is if every household in Calgary did one less toilet flush per day, we would save 12 million litres of water," she said.

Calgary, a city of 1.6 million people, and some nearby municipalities including Airdrie and Chestermere, have been under a combination of mandatory and voluntary water cutback rules since the major water line ruptured in Calgary’s northwest on June 5.

Gondek said the city reached its maximum threshold of 480 million litres used on Friday — a figure that had stabilized from the day prior.

Anything higher than the threshold means Calgary is using more water than it can produce and will eventually run out.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” she said.

“I have to ask you to do a little bit more,” she added.

She also said Calgarians should take advantage of the rainy weekend forecast for the city.

“Collecting rainwater isn’t limited to rain barrels,” said Calgary Emergency Management Agency chief Sue Henry, “Any type of container can be put out to collect the rain. An old pot or pan, garbage can, kiddie pool – any container will be helpful to store up for those drier days, if they come, while we are still repairing the line.”

Business impact

Water services director Nancy Mackay said the city had reached out to over 7,000 city businesses about conserving water.

One Calgary car wash, Top Gear, posted to its Facebook page, that it had been asked to close until further notice due to water restrictions.

Top Gear Car Wash in Calgary said in a posting on its Facebook page that it has been asked to close due to water restrictions. (Photo: Facebook/Topgear)

Other obstacles

Business owners in the neighbourhood close to the water main break face other obstacles.

Traffic congestion due to the repairs is concerning for businesses in Montgomery and Bowness.

“When the water main break first happened we had a full dining room and piles of dishes to the ceiling so that was a bit jarring,” said Alejandro Solano, general manager of Bowness restaurant Salt & Pepper.

That meant a few days with only half the customers they normally get, but a campaign to bring people to businesses in the area has brought their numbers back up.

He also owns another restaurant in Chinatown called S’More Please and says they are taking measures at both businesses to reduce water use.

“Our suppliers will wash our vegetables and that sort of stuff for us to limit our usage," he said.

He says he is not concerned about having to make changes at work and skipping showers and flushes at home for a few weeks.

“City of Calgary is a resilient bunch so we’ll pull together," Solano said. "We’ll figure it out.”

The fix

Fixing the ruptured pipe, which is big enough in diameter for a car to drive through, consists of welding a replacement pipe into place, cleaning it and testing it.

Henry said an analysis of the pipe conditions earlier in the week revealed the break was "catastrophic."

"We've seen the complexity of the one fix that we've been managing for the last week," she said.

"Now that we have five fixes to make, this will be a complex undertaking and we need to make sure that we have a smooth path ahead and mitigate as many circumstances as possible."

Saturday afternoon, at the city's 2 p.m. update, Henry re-iterated how much has changed in the past 24 hours.

"The magnitude of this incident has changed tremendously," she said. "It's very, very complicated to do five work sites at a single time."

Mayor Gondek said the hope is that the fixes can be made quicker than the three to five week timeline.

"If we can make this happen faster, we will make it happen faster," she said.

Calgary Stampede?

The updated timeline for repairs also means water restrictions are likely to be in place through the start of the Calgary Stampede, which is scheduled for July 5-14 this year.

The annual fair and rodeo is known for attracting droves of tourists and filling Calgary bars and restaurants throughout the 10-day festivities.

Jordan Hansen, of Ponoka, Alta., comes off Black Bart during bull riding rodeo action at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, July 7, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Gondek said she wouldn't speculate on whether this year's edition will need to take place under adapted rules if the situation is not resolved by opening day.

"What I can tell you is that we've got really good partnerships at the city with many organizations, including Calgary Stampede, and I'm looking forward to understanding their perspective after their meeting here yesterday," she said.

With the Calgary Stampede just weeks away, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce is calling on the city to ensure visitor economy and international reputation during these two weeks are unhindered by the current water crisis.

In a statement, chamber president and CEO Deborah Yedlin said, "Generating $540 million in economic impact, the Stampede is a critical time for businesses across several sectors, and any interruptions could have substantial economic repercussions. This is particularly acute for tourism and hospitality sectors that are still working to make up for several challenging years through the pandemic."

Fire ban

A city-wide fire ban remains in place in Calgary, including all city parks.

Henry said the city has received 1,794 about water misuse.

That has resulted in 1,000 warnings, including 507 verbal warnings, 13 written warnings and one ticket.

The city has also received 204 calls about people violating the fire ban resulting in 45 verbal warnings, 13 written warnings and one ticket.

Detours are in place at as 16 Ave. is closed at Home Road N.W.

For more information, visit the City of Calgary's website.

With files from The Canadian Press and Alesia Fieldberg

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