BETHEL – Bethel Water District Superintendent Lucien Roberge expects to have the district’s water system back online today, thanks to the Auburn Water District, local contractors and volunteers.
“Those guys were lifesavers today,” Bethel Water District consulting engineer Al Hodsdon said on Friday of Auburn Water District Assistant Superintendent John Storer and crewmen Mark and Nick Bouyea, Rod Mercier, David Hamann, and Craig Millett.
“They really made a difference. They’re a great bunch of guys,” Roberge added.
“We were just glad to help,” said Storer, who had to limit how many volunteers he brought to help Bethel. He had to keep the Auburn district running, too.
Running about 1,500 feet of 6-inch piping overground to another mountain stream water source, which local contractors had dammed earlier, and connecting it to the Bethel district’s underground piping is only a temporary fix, Roberge said.
“It will give us some degree of supply, but it certainly won’t replace what we need. But it will be a start,” Selectman Don Bennett said at scene.
Bethel hasn’t been able to provide its own water since late Wednesday night when a sudden downpour sent walls of mud, water, boulders and timber crashing through woods on the western side of Barker Mountain.
Storm debris also completely inundated the district’s Chapman Brook Reservoir, which was created in 1893, and destroyed the watershed in the process. Angevine Park was also wiped out.
Oxford County Emergency Management Agency Director Scott Parker said he thought the damage looked like a microburst or cloudburst hit the mountainside.
“They didn’t get heavy rain over a few hours, they got between 4 and 5 inches of rain in about 30 minutes, but I can’t validate the volume and time,” Parker said to Oxford County District Conservationist Peter Marcinuk while standing beside North Road.
The incredible damage looked as if a volcanic blast detonated, but without the heat, fire and ash.
In some places, large sections of mountainsides turned to quicksand-like mud, taking boulders and trees with root systems the size of small cars down the valley, destroying everything in its path.
“It was a freak of nature,” Bethel Water District Assistant Superintendent Donald Katlin said on scene of the storm.
“It looks like God took his finger and went unh, unh, unh,” Eben F. Joslyn said, carving a finger in a zigzag pattern through the air to illustrate the path of destruction down the valley.
Joslyn is a field services engineer with the Maine Drinking Water Program. He and Parker toured the devastation and offered their assistance to Roberge, shortly after Bethel selectmen unanimously declared a state of emergency due to extensive damage to the town’s water supply.
“This was the quintessential mountain stream. It was probably one of the most beautiful places on the earth. It’s too bad to see great natural resources like this being destroyed naturally,” Joslyn said.
Joslyn also downplayed logging on Barker Mountain three to four years ago as possibly setting the stage for destruction.
“That’s a misconception and bad journalism to blame logging. We brought the forest service and (Maine Department of Environmental Protection) up here then and they all walked out of here saying there was no cause for concern,” Joslyn said.
“A lot of that logging was associated with removing damage from the ice storm,” Katlin added.
By 5 p.m. Friday, the Auburn crew had finished the temporary piping fix. Water and air could be heard whooshing through the pipes, headed down to the Bethel district’s chlorinator building and into the system.
Late Friday evening, they were still flushing piping that was filled with sediment during the storm.
In addition to Poland Spring, the Rumford Water District and Splash Inc. of Turner are trucking water daily to Bethel, so that residents and businesses won’t have to boil water, Roberge said. He’s also fielded calls from other Maine water districts wanting to help out.
Despite the disaster, Roberge said water in customers houses is perfectly safe to drink, but he continues to urge residents to practice extreme water conservation measures. Bethel’s car wash and laundromat businesses closed voluntarily.
“We only want people to limit doing their laundry, reduce their time in the shower, no watering the flowers or washing cars and dogs. Just use common sense. The more they conserve, the less deliveries we’ll have to take. And, we’re going to flush our pipes all night and keep our fingers crossed that it will come online (today),” Roberge added.