Winter brought budget-busting number of water main breaks
A water main break floods parts of N. 26th St., near W. McKinley Ave., on Feb. 13. There were a total of 661 water main breaks in Milwaukee this winter, nearly double from the previous year.
The brutal winter of 2013-’14 will be remembered for many things.
At Milwaukee’s Water Works, employees will remember the snow, ice and cold combining for a budget-busting season of broken water mains, burst water meters and frozen pipes.
From Dec. 1 of last year through March 28, there were a total of 661 water main breaks in the city, nearly double from the previous winter.
In February alone, there were 251 water-main breaks around the city.
Water meters burst, too. From Dec. 1 through March 28, 509 meters broke. During the same period the previous winter, only 126 meters broke.
All those broken mains and meters also meant somebody had to go out in the cold and ice and fix them. There are approximately 2,000 miles of water mains in the city.
Milwaukee Water Works officials say the city spent $655,000 on overtime this winter fixing broken mains, burst meters and other so-called “frozen services.” That’s nearly $297,000 more than the overtime paid in the previous winter.
But what really put the Water Works budget in the hole was the amount of money to pay outside contractors for repairs and investigations. Through March 28, the city spent $1.66 million on outside contractors for water-main repair work and inspection. That is more than four times higher than the previous winter.
“It was a hellish winter,” said Carrie Lewis, the city’s Water Works superintendent. “We had workers working 16-hour days, seven days a week.”
Lewis said that in some cases, part of the lateral between the water main and the water meter inside the building froze. “That’s extremely rare,” she said.
In some municipalities up north, Lewis said, some water mains froze.
“It’s insane,” said Ald. Joe Dudzik, a former Department of Public Works employee who knows how hard water-main repair work can be. “These guys are knee deep in mud and water. And it’s below freezing. Not a comfortable work environment.”
Brian Stafford, chief repairman for the Milwaukee Water Works, spent hours fixing broken water mains this winter.
Now in his 34th year with the city, Stafford was asked how bad the winter was for workers.
“It’s right up there in my top 10,” he said. “The work conditions are terrible. And when the TV weather guys tell everyone to stay home, we’re going out to fix a broken water main.”
Stafford said this winter was characterized by a particularly deep frost, sometimes 7 feet deep, he said
“Even by our standards, that’s really deep,” he said. “It’s hard on equipment and it’s hard on us.”
The brutal conditions did not spare other cities. In the city of West Allis, from Jan. 1 through late March, the city had to repair 90 broken water mains, according to Dan Schwebke, superintendent of water for the city.
During the same period the previous winter, the city had only 41 broken water mains.
And that doesn’t count the frozen or burst water meters and laterals, Schwebke said.
He added that the city is still tallying up the extra costs.
In Waukesha, Dan Duchniak, general manager of the city’s water utility, said the city had to spend an extra $215,000 to deal with broken water mains and other frozen services.
Normally, the city budgets for five water-main breaks over a three-month period. This season, he said, “we’ve had three to four times the normal rate.”
Laterals froze at alarming levels, as well, Duchniak said. Normally, the city has to deal with one or two in a season. This year, there were 133 instances of a lateral between the water main and the water meter inside that was frozen.
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