Water problems costing V.I. businesses

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ST. THOMAS - Stylist and business owner Yohanna Lake hauled jugs of water from her Solberg home to her Sugar Estate salon just to keep the business open Wednesday.

About 16 jugs lined Healthy Hair Salon's back hall, and a five-gallon bin full of water separated chairs in a rear parlor room Wednesday afternoon while Lake styled a teenage girl's hair near the salon's entrance.

"If I don't have any water, how can I work?" Lake asked. "We need to shampoo the hair, to relax it and for color, it's all done with water."

For businesses in Charlotte Amalie, Frenchtown, Havensight, Buccaneer Mall and Sugar Estate relying on public water, the island's busy tourist season has been parched by six weeks of sporadic water service.

That service shut off entirely Wednesday while the V.I. Water and Power Authority worked to replenish enough water to overcome equipment failures that have, since Nov. 15, diminished water storage and service at the St. Thomas Harley Plant.

During the Christmas weekend, areas without water included Sugar Estate, downtown Charlotte Amalie, Sub Base and Hospital Ground residents.

Although three temporary reverse osmosis water units have produced 750,000 gallons daily since Friday, St. Thomas requires 1.8 million gallons each day. Reverse osmosis filters seawater to make drinking water.

WAPA has said it is working to add three additional reverse osmosis units, doubling production to 1.5 million gallons daily.

Plans are in place to produce an additional 500,000 gallons of water daily, according to WAPA.

The Harley Plant's existing four desalination plants, which at maximum output can produce 3 million gallons of water daily, have been inoperable since a waste-heat recovery boiler, Unit 21, shut down last week, WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said.

Another boiler, Unit 11, also shut down Thursday after a feed pump failed and derailed the entire plant's water and power production.

Business impact

Healthy Hair Salon is not the only St. Thomas business struggling to meet its customers' needs amid the water crisis.

Patrick Dunn cherished having 400 customers attend the grand opening of Starz Nightclub in Port of Sale Mall on Friday, but he was unable to open the two-level bar Saturday when the lack of water made it impossible to flush the toilets.

"We're 100-percent reliant on WAPA water," Patrick Dunn said.

Friday, between 10 p.m. and midnight, Starz lost water service, and the employees had to find water to fill five-gallon buckets to flush the toilets, Patrick Dunn said.

Saturday's closure meant thousands of dollars in missed revenue for a business that cost $3 million to establish, he said.

Patrick Dunn also owns The Rock Night Club and Lounge next door to Starz.

To keep that business open Saturday, he had to rent a portable toilet - an additional expense.

Although WAPA has said its rationing schedules are approximate and depend on how quickly lines are filled, Patrick Dunn said WAPA's often unmet schedules have strained his businesses.

"They're always wrong," he said, referring to WAPA's water rationing schedules.

Patrick Dunn is spending an additional $3,000 on pumping supplies and two 1,000-gallon cisterns, which he bought Wednesday from The Home Depot and placed behind the businesses to buffer the dry spell.

Home Depot had only a handful of the cisterns left in stock, he said.

The landlord, Port of Sale Mall, has asked that Patrick Dunn's blue tanks be a temporary solution but did not give him a deadline for their removal.

"We're just going to use them as long as we have to," he said.

With regular use, the two cisterns would carry Patrick Dunn's businesses about two to three days, he said.

Sugar Estate Laundromat is another business with a more immediate reliance on regular water service.

Two 4,000-gallon cisterns, which the business also shares with a nearby restaurant, supplement the laundromat's WAPA water supply in emergency situations.

During the intermittent WAPA water rationing, business owner Imras Baig's employees have been using the public water to fill the cisterns below.

Tuesday, when WAPA's supply dried out at the laundromat and the business exhausted its cisterns, a slew of Sugar Estate Laundromat customers were infuriated when their soapy clothes could not finish rinsing.

The laundromat had to refund the customers' money, Baig said.

The business has had to buy a truckload, or 5,000 gallons, of water daily to remain open, he said.

Baig has owned the laundromat for about one-and-a-half years and he said this is the worst water problems he has faced.

Baig has paid the $350 fee for a truckload of water to be delivered about four or five times in the last week.

By Wednesday, Baig estimated the costs of replenishing the cisterns was chewing into 60 percent of the laundromat's revenues.

"There is no solution," he said. "It's not good. We are losing money right now."

Restaurant manager Kalyan Alla opened the Food Court Express in Sugar Estate on Dec. 9 - in the midst of the water shortage - and has had to tap the laundromat's cisterns.

"It's better to have WAPA water than cistern water," Alla said, referring to the repeated and unexpected periods when the cisterns dry out.

"It's affecting business," Alla said. "When we run out of water, we call the water truck."

Food Court Express employees have transferred cistern water with buckets because the pump does not feed all the restaurant's taps.

Vina Nails and Spa in Sugar Estate is another business that relies entirely on WAPA water.

The spa needs water to clean its nail files and other tools.

A public restroom beside the business has been its sole source of water during WAPA's dry spells, said owner David Nguyen.

"Every day I have to open," Nguyen said, referring to the economically trying time. "Every time the customer comes, I just bring water from another restroom by little buckets, and every time I have to clean up."

Nguyen said the challenge is maintaining a sanitary - and comfortable - environment that entices customers.

"It's all about making them comfortable and carrying the water and making sure it's clean by using disinfection," Nguyen said. "We need the money."

Nguyen said the season is his business' busiest.

"I don't know who to complain with," Nguyen said. "It is a very hard time for us."

St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce President Richard Berry said the lack of water is a "crisis situation" that has forced many business closures.

Berry's professional affiliates - Leeward Islands Management, West Indies Corporation and Bellows International - remained open despite having toilets that wouldn't flush, he said.

"Today, the majority of our offices are without running water," Berry said on Wednesday. "It's the end of the year, and we can't afford not to be working."

Tourism effects

Wednesday, as four cruise ships unloaded more than 11,000 passengers on St. Thomas, concerns had risen over how those visitors would go to the restroom without operable bathrooms downtown.

V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said her agency, along with V.I. Public Works, on Friday pre-empted that concern by placing portable toilets at Emancipation Gardens.

"Public Works took the initiative to get them there," Nicholson-Doty said. "These were specifically placed to deal with the WAPA water crisis."

Whether the agencies would add more temporary toilets downtown would have to be weighed against budget constraints and physical limitations to find an optimum location that would not interfere with foot and vehicular traffic, she said.

"We're looking at our budget now," Nicholson-Doty said.

Although WAPA has no conrete timetable for when full water service will be restored, it said it will offer updates at www.viwapa.vi or by calling 774-3552 and pressing 6 for a recorded message.

- Contact reporter Michael Todd at 714-9104 or email mtodd@dailynews.vi.

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