Two weeks ago, Jhonny Langer heard water flowing outside his house. That wasn’t unusual. He kept a small fountain outside, powered by electricity, but the power was out and the fountain was off. Langer turned off the water supply to his house and still heard water flowing.
He peered under the house at 12th Street and Avenue M on Galveston’s East End and found a crumbling iron pipe spewing water onto the underside of the house — after the house’s water supply was turned off.
When he touched the pipe, “it became an absolute gusher,” Langer said in an email to City Manager Brian Maxwell.
City workers came out within an hour and were generous with their time trying to determine the source of the water flowing through what was apparently an abandoned pipe, Langer said.
All to no avail, a city official said.
“We’ve excavated at the city’s expense, trying to help him the best we can,” Maxwell said Thursday. “We’ve dug as deep as our main all around the house and we don’t know where this water is coming from.”
It’s not an unheard-of problem at an old house — Langer’s was built in 1903 — especially in the historic East End, where, after the 1900 Storm, the elevation of the island was raised with infill, covering all manner of pipes and other infrastructure. Over a century, new water lines were hooked up to the city’s mains and, when they could be found, old pipes no longer in use were capped.
And the leak under Langer’s house is an example of much larger problem on the island, where 25 percent of the water the city buys goes missing before it ever reaches a meter, officials have said.
A much larger example came to light in December last year when city workers discovered a leak in a main water line that nobody knew existed had been pouring an average of 3 million gallons of water, worth thousands of dollars, into the storm sewer system each day for years.
A city utility worker showed him the patch in the street in front of his house where a new line was laid in the 1990s, Langer said.
“The problem is that a new line was added, but the old line that was under my house was abandoned,” Langer said. “It was abandoned because they couldn’t find it and somebody said, ‘We’ll let somebody else take care of it in the future.’ Well, the future is now.”
The continuously running water has caused considerable damage to the underside of his house and continues to run, despite a temporary patch placed over a large hole in the crumbling pipe, Langer said.
“I can fill a gallon container in a minute with what’s flowing out,” he said.
The water apparently isn’t running through Langer’s meter, however, he said.
Langer’s councilman, Craig Brown, said Langer contacted him when he discovered the problem and Brown told him the leak, on private property, needed to be taken care of by a privately hired plumber.
“When he said why it couldn’t be done, the city manager agreed to go out and have the city try to locate where the pipe may be connecting to the main water line,” Brown said.
Brown, Langer and Maxwell all agreed that emergency crews were sent out, vast numbers of holes were dug over several days and, ultimately, no progress was made.
“Throughout all this, the city continued to mention to Mr. Langer that all he needed to do is contact a plumber,” Brown said.
The city wants to see the water stop flowing, many thousands of gallons over 15 days, but getting it stopped is the responsibility of the homeowner, not the city, Brown said.
Langer said in his initial message to Maxwell that he’d contacted four plumbers who “would do nothing because the pipe was too old and rotted.”
His insurance company won’t pay to have the water stopped and will compensate only for damages incurred by the leak, he said.
On Thursday, he said he has found a plumber who will attempt to cap the pipe once a part comes in.
But he contended that finding the source of the water flow should be the city’s responsibility and that stopping the flow should be the focus of everyone involved.
Maxwell said the city has done its part to the tune of “tens of thousands of dollars in public funds” to locate the source of the water, but stopping the flow is Langer’s responsibility.
“The bottom line is that he has to get a plumber out there to cap off that pipe,” Maxwell said. “It’s no different than your faucet leaking in your kitchen or your toilet leaking.”
Langer said the damage to his house is substantial and he will file a claim with the city and his insurance company if the water flow is not cut off quickly.
Maxwell said that’s not likely.
“The only other thing we could do to locate the source is begin shutting off main valves around his neighborhood, but that would put hundreds of homes out of service.”