JANESVILLE — Mandy Price was cleaning her kitchen when water from her faucet slowed to a drizzle.

“It got down to the point where I had basically no water,” Price said. “There was just a slight trickle coming out, if that, and I had the faucet wide open.”

Conversations with neighbors confirmed the problem was affecting the entire neighborhood.

Price, who had worked as an accountant with the city water utility, guessed a water main break was causing the problem.

She was right. The break was bleeding so much water that the system couldn’t compensate with enough extra water to maintain pressure in Price’s neighborhood on Janesville’s northeastern side.

Three years later, it could happen again. The water utility’s plan to fix the problem by building a new water tower in the city’s northeast corner was delayed by the city council’s financial concerns.

The discussion brought into the spotlight the city’s water utility—perhaps the city service that is most taken for granted.

The tower question

Businesses and homes on the northeast side are served by one of the city’s underground reservoirs and four wells. On a normal day, service and water pressure are fine.

But when a water main breaks or fire fighting draws a large quantity of water, pressure can’t be maintained.

Customers—like Price did—notice it in their showers and sinks. Low pressure also can allow contaminants to be suctioned into the system.

Director of Utilities Dan Lynch and other water utility officials argued that adding another water tower on the city’s northeast side would be a back-up measure for emergencies in the area. By releasing more water from the tower, they could maintain pressure at a safe level until a problem was fixed or fire extinguished.

The request for another water tower was never just about quantity the quantity of water available in the north zone but centered on maintaining pressure and getting water “where it needs to be,” Water Utility Superintendent Katie Karow said.

Water should flow down from underground reservoirs or water towers placed at elevations above the service area, Karow said. A second tower would have allowed the city to release additional water to the northeast section of the city during emergencies.

The city council Aug. 10 voted down a proposal to seek federal stimulus money to help pay for a new water tower. Several council members insisted the city has to deal with the effects of a recession and other large capital projects before considering the tower.

The council’s decision is understandable and reasonable, Lynch said.

“We’ll just have to hold off and make plans when the economic situation in Janesville has improved,” he said.

City residents have questioned why the loss of the GM plant didn’t reduce the need for a new tower. Shouldn’t there be more water available for the northeast side anyway?

It’s an understandable question, but Lynch said there’s a simple answer. The GM plant is in the south pressure zone, which is at a lower elevation. Moving water from that zone to other parts of the city would mean pumping water up hill at a significant energy cost.

The capacity of the city’s pumping stations also is a factor. The faster you move water through a pipe, the more friction is created, dropping pressure.

“It’s always been a question of quality of service,” Lynch said. “That’s the only goal here.”

How it works

Each day at the water utility building begins in the same way. Water utility employees monitor the system of reservoirs and twisting pipes on a computer screen in a nondescript office building. They evaluate the levels in each storage unit, bright green and blue symbolizing when things are working correctly and when they’re not.

The utility pumps an average 11.7 million gallons per day. The biggest day in 2008 was Aug. 2, when the city system provided nearly 15.8 million gallons. With all pumps running at full capacity, the system can deliver 22,000 gallons per minute, or 32 million gallons per day.

On a recent Tuesday, everything was running as it should. Wells pumped. Blending and treatment stations churned out safe water to meet the day’s demand.

The colors and numbers seemed simple: water travels from well to pipe to house.

But the key to safety and supply lies in the details: how much fluoride to mix in, how often to shut off wells, how much water might be needed in reservoirs.

Every drop of water supplied through the city’s utility comes from two underground sources: the pre-glacial Rock River Valley aquifer and the deeper St. Peter Sandstone aquifer. Eight city wells pull water from the aquifers—four in the shallower gravel pack and four in the deeper and denser sandstone.

Wells are housed in pumping stations scattered across the city. The water utility asked that the locations not be disclosed for security reasons.

Fluoride and chlorine are added at the pumping stations to kill bacteria before it is pumped into 366 miles of water mains that connect with homes, businesses and other facilities.

The city is divided into three “pressure zones.” The pumps don’t run all the time, but usually one is running in each zone, according to the water utility.

Most of the pumping is done at night when electric rates are lower. In the south zone and north zone, water is stored in earth-covered concrete reservoirs that can hold 14 million gallons. In the northwest zone, a water tower added in 2007 stores 500,000 gallons. The storage facilities are elevated over their zones so water can flow downhill to customers.

How much is there

Rock County is lucky to have an ample supply of water from which to pump, Lynch said.

The aquifers have served the area since the first shallow well was drilled in 1887, and the first deep well was added in 1938.

But the trouble with groundwater is there’s no easy way to determine how much is left, Karow said.

The water utility is planning to hire a consultant to study the aquifers that supply Janesville’s water.

Using 2-D and 3-D models, engineers can estimate how much water remains in the shallow and deep sources.

“Everyone always viewed water as an unlimited supply, and it isn’t,” Lynch said. “Essentially, there’s the same amount of water on the Earth as there was 4 billion years ago.”

Other cities, including Madison and Waukesha, have found themselves with supply problems. Water tables near those cities have been drawn down 100 feet below normal, said Tom Stunkard, public water supply engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A legislative committee is working to draft an update to the 2003 Ground Water Quantity Management Law that could regulate groundwater use and mandate conservation efforts.

Drawing down the water table creates an underground cone-shaped dearth of water around those communities, Lynch said.

But there’s no reason to believe the aquifers under Janesville have a serious problem, Lynch said.

The deeper sandstone aquifer under Janesville provides about 750,000 gallons of water per day. The shallower gravel pack aquifer provides twice that amount each day.

“I can assure people that we’re not over pumping like Madison has been for years,” Lynch said. “Our dual supply makes it easier to use our resources efficiently. That’s a gift that many communities don’t have.”