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'Ice volcano' keeps Duluth Heights taps open

A massive ice sculpture on Orange Street in Duluth Heights was created by spray from a water main. [Bob King / News Tribune]

Anyone driving along the 300 block of Orange Street in Duluth Heights for the first time is bound to slow down and ask: "What is that thing?"

The answer is a towering mound of ice, accented by water spewing into the air at just less than a gallon a minute. When the temperature falls below zero, the water turns into vapor.

"We call it the ice volcano," said Bunter Knowles, who has lived across the street from it for 20 years.

For at least that long, the city of Duluth has been responsible for opening a valve and releasing the water during the winter. In light of a controversial proposal to increase water rates to be voted on in two weeks, city officials say it's not a waste of taxpayer money, but the only way to keep a water line that serves about 10 homes from freezing.

"It's cost-effective to do it that way," said Steve Lapinsky, the city's manager of utility operations.

The ground along Orange Street has a large amount of bedrock, making it difficult to install a water pipe deep enough not to be reached by frost. To prevent a pipe from freezing and bursting, a valve has to be opened up, allowing the water to spray, which freezes and creates the ice structure.

"It's part of living in Duluth," Knowles said. "Or at least part of living in Duluth Heights."

If the valve wasn't open, "we'd have to carry buckets or get well water," he said.

"It's less costly to have the water flowing," said Eric Shaffer, the city's chief engineer of utilities, "than to replace the line or to fix it when it freezes and breaks."

Instead of assessing the homeowners for the discharged water, the city pays the bill, which is relatively small. A resident using a gallon of water a minute for a month would be billed about $140 under the city's current water rate structure.

Knowles notes that while the Orange Street residents don't pay for the water, they do pay storm-water charges.

"I think the city is doing this very responsibly," Knowles said. "It would be a massive project just to install a new sewer line that would serve only a few homes."