We’ve just spent three and a half days tethered to the house next door. All of our drinking, cooking, showering and flushing water came to us through a blue rubber hose that snaked across my neighbour’s yard, went up over the fence and curled into a knotted mess in a window well where it connected to a tap that had been jury rigged to flow backwards. Our comfort hung by a thread. A kink in the hose (or a dog enjoying a rubbery chew) would bring life in the Soapbox household to a screeching halt.
It all started innocently enough when two City water trucks and a pile-driver converged on the fire hydrant outside our house. Apparently fire plugs are not as tough as they look and this one had to be replaced.
A squad of men wearing reflective clothing cordoned off half of the block—orange cones and wooden barriers all over the place. You’d think they were disarming a nuclear device.
And then it started. The pile-driver attacked the earth around the fire hydrant. My century old house shuddered with every blow. A thought flickered…should I stockpile some water? Nah, they’d tell me if they were going to shut it off.
Blithely I set out on my weekly trek to the local library and Mr Soapbox had a nap (proving that he really can sleep through anything).
When I returned I reached for a glass of water—you guessed it, nothing, nada, nary a drop.
Right—time for a chat with the water guys. I caught the attention of a burly man wearing wrap-around sunglasses. I have no water, I said, when will you turn it back on? He looked at me, Ah…we just noticed the ditch filling up with water. Ah…we don’t know where it’s coming from (my house perhaps???) Ah…we don’t know how long the water will be off. And then he fled back to the man-pack staring intently into the ditch filling up with my water.
Right—time to send in Mr Soapbox. In a flash he was out the door and heading for the man-pack. Two seconds later they were standing around looking into the hole. Don’t you love it when they do that?
After bonding with the water guys Mr Soapbox came back with the full story. The pile-driver had shattered our water line. If they couldn’t repair it by 6 o’clock, they wouldn’t be back for 2 days because they don’t work on Sundays. But not to worry, they’d send out the water truck, complete with big red buckets so that we could haul our own water whenever we needed it. How reassuring.
I sent Mr Soapbox to the local Co-Op to buy up all the water he could find and called my daughter to schedule an appointment at dawn with her shower. I left a message because she was having a shower. What torment…
To add to the misery Sam the sprinkler guy appeared to shut off the outside sprinklers and blow down the system. Wait…! The sprinklers are shooting a fine spray of water all over the back yard! I grabbed a bucket but it was too late, the sprinkler system was dry.
At 6 o’clock the water guys fessed up. The water line had not been repaired. They would return on Monday and we’d be without water for the weekend. But they had a solution. They could hook us up to our neighbour’s water line if the neighbour consented.
Our neighbour on our right greeted the water guys with a question—when were they going to turn on the water, she wanted a shower (don’t we all?) and yes she’d be happy to let us tie into her pipe…unfortunately, the City water guys shattered her coupling last year and it couldn’t take the strain of supplying both households.
Our neighbour on our left was out of town but the house-sitter, who’d just popped out of the shower (really?) was sure they wouldn’t mind if we hooked up to their water supply.
And that’s how we became tethered to our neighbour’s house for three and a half days. We would have been off her system a day earlier but the water guys refused to turn our water back on because … Ah….they didn’t want to take off their boots to enter our house (What??) Ah…it’s a union thing (you’re joking, right?)
The next day a different water guy (in boots) entered our house and turned on the water. It ran at full pressure for 5 minutes and dried up. They’d failed to clear the dirt out of the pipe when it shattered and silt (bugs? leaves?) had been carried into our system when it was re-pressurized. This water guy cleaned out the water-filter and ran the taps for 30 minutes to clear out the sludge.
The Soapbox family found this experience extremely frustrating. At first I blamed the water guys. Anyone who works in the oil and gas industry will tell you that running a pile-driver right up to an underground pipe is stupid, if not dangerous. They always hand-dig the last few feet because the “as-built” drawings are never 100% accurate. Refusing to turn on our water because someone didn’t want to remove his boots or was it a union problem (does the union prohibit the removal of footwear?) added to the Keystone Kops factor.
But eventually I focused my anger at the right target—the municipal government. Like all Calgarians we pay taxes for basic services. Unlike most Calgarians I like to pay taxes. It’s the only way to fund the infrastructure we need to deliver water, heat, electricity, and sewage disposal to our homes, to clear our streets and provide the amenities we require to live in a civilized society.
The same holds true at the provincial and federal levels. We need provincial and federal regulatory bodies and ministries like food inspectors to protect our food supply, fisheries scientists to protect the marine environment, and banking regulators and the competition bureau to safeguard our financial sector and our ability to compete.
We pay for these services with our tax dollars. We have every right to expect municipal, provincial and federal governments to spend our tax dollars wisely. The level of incompetence the Soapbox family witnessed from the simple replacement of a fire hydrant is but a drop in the bucket (if you’ll pardon the pun) that Albertans and Canadians have endured as a result of the government’s reluctance or inability to act in the public interest.
In our case it was simply an inconvenience. In the case of the elderly woman living in a long term care facility who was attacked by another resident while asleep in her bed, it is unconscionable.
This has to stop.
We pay taxes because we’re all in this together. No one, particularly the disadvantaged, the sick or the elderly should suffer needlessly at the hands of a Keystone Kops government that can’t be trusted to spend our tax dollars wisely.
I can laugh about the situation now, but at the time, it was more than a little annoying. Hindsight also helps draw lessons out of such experiences. But first, I need to clarify some of the factoids.
The crew showed up Saturday morning with two dump trucks, one back hoe and one construction trailer…there were no pile drivers and the water wagons showed up later in the day. They proceeded to tear up the roadway, the curb and gutter and lots of dirt as evidenced by the monster hole. I went out, as all guys are apt to do, to find out what was really going on. The foreman greeted me with a cheerful. “How do you like your new swimming pool?” as I peered into a very big, very dirty pool of water that had filled the newly dug pit.
Over the next few days I came out and talked to the crew and their foreman, Ernie. They were all polite and cautious about what to say. That is in part because there was a second team, who hook up and disconnect the tether (and all the valves in the bowels of our house), who also were equally pleasant, but either had a different boss or a different union. So, they had to work in sequence without much control over the other team…it took longer, but it still worked out. I also don’t fault the original team for ripping our water feed out of the ground by mistake. Given our house is 100 years old this year, and that pipe was running at a strange angle (rather than perpendicular), it is not surprising. How many of us start “simple” renovation projects around the home, only to find it ends up costing three times more than planned and takes twice as long?
Lessons learned. First, government appears invisible until something goes wrong like a water service being shut off. It is important to support government because it does provide services that we as a community need. Secondly, get to know your neighbours as they are part of your community too. Our first neighbour unhesitatingly said to tap in for water (and then teased me about swapping water for wine). Our second neighbour was out of town, but upon her return, I thanked her and her response was pretty nonchalant. “Oh that is nothing as I know you would have done that for us.” She was right. We are part of a larger community. Perhaps the Calgary Stampede captures the spirit with its “We’re greatest together” motto for this Centennial year.
You men…today it’s “Ernie”, but a week ago it was those blankety blank water guys!
All kidding aside, I’m glad you made the point about community. This string of bad things getting worse had relatively little impact on our lives because we had neighbours we could count on. But many people in Alberta lack the community support or the financial means to come through these types of upsets as easily as we did. Just think about how much more difficult it would have been for a 70 year old woman living alone to be faced with the choice of hauling her own water from the water truck or paying for a hotel. This all goes back to the point we’re both making…we’re in this together. So thank you Mr Soapbox for keeping Ernie and the gang on the job until the entire mess was sorted out.
PS. I swear that thing was a pile driver.
Thanks for sharing your story about your “water issues”- and in such a humorous way! I like that you both have slightly different versions of events. Ain’t it the way?
We urbanites carry on our merry ways, just taking all the “infrastructure” around us for granted. (Paid for courtesy of taxes, as you note). We really are helpless in so many ways, though, and don’t realise it until something like this happens. And water particularly, is something we can’t do without for very long. We are pretty lucky in our corner of the universe.
So true, Elaine. What made the whole thing bearable was the support we got from our neighbours, once again demonstrating the importance of community and caring for each other.
A mannerly description of bureaucratic chaos. If this continues, I’m sure Mayor Nenshi will personally intervene. (He’s the bees’ knees.) And he’ll take his boots off!
You’re right Phil…Mayor Nenshi welcomes feedback and is a gentleman to boot.