Ithaca, N.Y. — Yesterday, Ithaca’s Department of Public Works was scrambling to find the cause of a leak that appeared to be causing massive amounts of the city’s water to be wasted.

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The bad news today: They haven’t found the leak. The good news? Water levels for the “Mitchell Street Zone” appear to have somehow returned to normal.

Which raises the possibility that maybe there wasn’t a leak to begin with. But then what was causing such a huge draw — 600 gallons of water per minute — in Ithaca’s water system on Tuesday and Wednesday?

“It’s a mystery to me,” says Erik Whitney, assistant superintendent for the Department of Public Works. “We’re scratching our heads.”

Whitney says one DPW worker will continue to conduct a search today for a broken main in case there is a leak somewhere.

It’s not possible that a major leak could have occurred and then resolved itself, according to Whitney. “It wouldn’t fix itself,” he says.

More likely, Whitney says, is that a “big user” was causing a disproportionately large amount of water to be discharged.

But that comes with a similar set of unresolved questions: Who could it have been? Cornell has its own water system, according to Whitney. Whitney speculated that a laundromat may have been the culprit.

Does that mean, though, that the situation could repeat itself? Or does the problem stem from something more temporary — like pipes frozen from these sub-zero temperatures? Will a big discharge just happen again?

“I cannot explain why the pumping tanks were inordinate,” Whitney says. “I dont think it could have been a leak because then we’d still be leaking.”

On Wednesday, Whitney told The Voice that there was an “alarming” amount of water being lost in the city and that crews had launched a search to find it. They were considering calling in additional manpower if the problem wasn’t fixed.

“It’s like a sleuth game: Identifying where that leak is,” Whitney said yesterday. “They’re going creek by creek, drainage system by drainage system.”

Whitney explained today that the search — while failing to find a big leak — had still found a few smaller problems.

“We found a couple small system leaks while looking,” he says, citing some blown off valves on Taughannock Boulevard that were quickly shut down.

As of Thursday morning, a DPW worker was out in Ithaca’s 8 degree weather, according to Whitney.

The worker using an “amplified listening device” and going to various fire hydrants throughout the city. The device, Whitney says, is like an “electronic stethoscope” that gives crews an ability to listen to the pipes below — whatever they may tell.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.