Tom Clyde: Waterworks mystery
Someday it would be nice to live in a house with normal utilities. I suppose that’s not unusual for most of you. You flip the light switch and the lights come on. Open the faucet, and water will come out. Somebody even took the arsenic out of it. And it will be hot water because gas arrives at the water heater through a pipeline that reaches hundreds of miles to many gas wells. You don’t do a thing; it just happens.
Not at my house. I’m not some off-the grid survivalist, but my house is just far enough off the beaten path that nothing is exactly normal. When I call Public Works, the phone in my kitchen rings.
Every couple of years, I will wake up to a very cold shower because the propane tank is empty, despite the stuck gauge insisting it is half full. Sometimes, the electricity is uninterrupted for a couple of weeks. It used to go out and stay out for days. Now I get little twitches in the power, just enough to mess with the electronics, even if I didn’t notice the lights flicker.
Which gets us down to water. It’s the simplest and most puzzling piece of it. The pipe starts at a spring up the canyon, and runs down to serve my house and a neighborhood of cabins farther down. There are no moving parts. It’s all gravity, which even an English major can’t mess up, which is good, because that’s who runs it. It was built in the 1930s to pipe water into the dairy where it was used to clean up, and also fill a concrete vat where the milk was chilled in 10-gallon cans. It served a cluster of houses around the dairy. Over the years the pipe got extended and more houses added on. Before long, it turned into something of a utility. We have a drawing of it, done by a former neighbor who was an engineer. He was 92 at the time, and living in St. George. The only thing accurate on it is the part that says, "not to scale."
When he moved, I inherited a lifetime appointment as head plumber. We crossed some magic threshold, and the State of Utah now requires us to conform to the same standards that apply to Salt Lake City, even though we serve 38 mostly vacant houses. I have to snowshoe up to the spring regularly to carry out my official duties.
As best I can tell, nothing has changed in 80 years. And then, six weeks ago, the spring appeared to be drying up. There has always been an overflow from the collection box. Always. Suddenly, there was no overflow at the collection box. We could rule out leaks downstream because the meter wasn’t moving. So the options were either a leak at the tank big enough to consume the entire flow of the spring, or the spring was drying up. Who do you call about that? Not many water witches in the yellow pages.
One of the neighbors is a civil engineer who works with this kind of stuff all the time, although on a Federal scale. You could drive a truck inside the pipes he works with. We pondered and puzzled on it for days. The initial reaction was to shut off the tank and see if the water leaked out. But that left a lot of plumbing exposed to freezing. The system was designed (and I use the term loosely) with the idea that it was always flowing because the cows were always producing milk that needed chilling.
He finally tracked down a device we could stick in the collection box and measure the flow, so we could decide if the spring was producing or not. Of course there are no historical records to compare it to, so we didn’t know what a "good" reading would be. We came up with an iron-clad testing protocol, and made the hike to the spring. The snow was completely rotten, and it was two steps on solid footing, then plunging in thigh deep. It was a miserable hike, but we got there.
When we got to the spring, the overflow pipe was gushing. Everything was normal. We fussed around with his flow meter before concluding that we should have looked at the instructions before leaving the house. When confronted with something that defies explanation, we came up with all kinds of theories—ice somewhere deep in the collection system seemed most plausible, though it’s never happened before. Or maybe the Scottish blessing I delivered was enough to melt the ice.
It seems to be back to normal, but the damage is done. Every morning when I turn on the shower, there is that momentary doubt that anything will come out.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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