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UNCOVERED: Fix for LaBelle water main break delayed by lost system maps

Efforts to modernize and map aging water systems underway as city seeks significant state funding
Posted at 6:04 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-01 18:04:27-05

LABELLE, Fla. — A busted water main caused real problems in LaBelle, and Fox 4's reporting has uncovered a big reason why people there didn’t have water for two days. It’s because the city couldn’t find the break, in part, because it doesn’t have a map of its own water system.

Mitchell Wills, Superintendent of Public Works, explained that the city's water system infrastructure dates back to the 1940s, predating computer databases. Over time, original maps have been lost, complicating efforts to address such emergencies.

Desperate to find the break, the city even reached out to former Public Works employees to see if they could help. FGCU civil engineering professor Seneshaw Tsegaye says this problem is more common than you might think.

“The broader challenge we have at the moment in the urban setting is not only knowing where the infrastructures are but also understanding how they're functioning underground," said Tsegaye. "We design them, bury them underground assuming that they're going to function for 20-30, sometimes 100 years without actually maintaining them, monitoring them, where they are and how they work."

To address these issues, the City of LaBelle has requested $5 million from the state legislature to upgrade the aging systems and make better maps. That’s in addition to another $5 million for expanding the water treatment plant.

“Realtime monitoring sensors buried into the infrastructures. Those sensors will provide you information on how the infrastructure functions over time," Tsegaye explained.. "They will tell you where they are, and if something happens they immediately report to the central system saying, ‘Okay, the pipe burst between this and this location.’"

As part of its proposed upgrades, LaBelle plans to replace aging valves to enhance its monitoring capabilities.

Johann Florexile, who Fox 4 first spoke with when his water was out on Monday says he appreciates the city's transparency and efforts to address the problem.

"I'm grateful that they were honest about it," he said. "They put it out in the open, so that tells me that they've identified a problem and are working on it."