Underground history: Aged manholes being replaced

A crew from Glosage Engineering of Richmond work at replacing an aged manhole at Blackburn and East Beach streets. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — Three early-day manholes in Watsonville are headed for the history books.

Built before World War II, the brick manholes are proving to be too much of a headache for public works crews, with leaking, crumbling and unpredictable behavior.

A crew from Glosage Engineering out of Richmond are currently working on three such manhole replacement projects: Blackburn and East Beach streets, Center Street at Carr Street and on Rogge Street.

“All of these are in an older section of town,” said Patrice Theriot, principal engineer for the City of Watsonville. “A lot of these utilities are definitely pre-World War II. Closer to downtown we even have a storm drain that was built in the 1940s. These utilities have had a lot of use.”

At the Blackburn project, workers on Monday dug out a deep crater in the center of the intersection of Blackburn and East Beach streets in order to remove the old brick manhole.

“We don’t crawl down into manholes anymore,” Theriot said. “For one, it’s too dangerous with built up gasses and such. We have very advanced equipment now that can do the hard work.”

Theriot said problems with the old system include water spilling into the system because the bricks are “very porous.” She said in some cases repairs can be easier and cheaper by relining the manhole with a fiberglass skin.

“But when they get to the point when they leak so much like they are now and the walls are not smooth, they simply have to be replaced,” she said. “Luckily, we don’t have any sewer lines made of brick.”

A manhole is an access to sewer lines that stem from residents and businesses.

Theriot said replacing each manhole would take several days each. The new ones will be made of concrete and have a manhole cast iron cover.

She said one of the biggest enemies to sewer lines is grease because it can harden and build up, creating blockages.

“Please don’t pour grease down the drain,” she said. “Another big enemy are flushable wipes — they’re not flushable and create a lot of problems. They’re used for babies but also seniors. They don’t break down like regular bathroom tissue.”

Theriot suggested a volunteer effort from the community known as Adopt-a-Storm Drain.

“It’s really easy: When the big rains come, make it a habit to check a storm drain of your choice, usually near your house, and make sure it is draining freely and not all blocked up with leaves; it only takes a few big leaves and it can get plugged,” she said.

Theriot said a small rake or even a stick can be used to clear a drain in just seconds.

On a historical note, Theriot said crews have actually uncovered wood water pipes around downtown including on Main and Second streets. Many of the early-day pipes were never mapped, according to Theriot.

“A lot of these utilities used to be privately owned and they were eventually taken in by the city,” she said. “What I’m always amazed with now is the old stuff that we find in our pipes and drains.”


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