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Water main breaks cause wintertime woes

A city worker fixes a water main break on Raleigh Street west of South 60th Avenue West on Thursday evening. Multiple people were left with flooded homes and without running water. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com1 / 4
A stream of frozen brown water from a water main break leads up to 201 and 203 S. 60th Ave. W. on Thursday evening. Tyler Schank / 2 / 4
City workers continue to fix a water main break that happened overnight Wednesday in West Duluth. Tyler Schank / 3 / 4
Crew members work to fix a water main break on Arrowhead Road near The Vineyard Church at 1533 W. Arrowhead Road on Friday. Tyler Schank / 4 / 4

Every winter, Duluth's aging infrastructure is put through the wringer by Mother Nature. And unfortunately, every winter parts of it fail and water comes bubbling out of the ground.

Many Duluth water mains are either 120-year-old cast iron pipes or 60-year-old ductile pipes. Both are coming to the end of their lifespan, Duluth public works utility operations supervisor Chris Kleist said.

Though it may seem like there are more breaks this winter than what is typically normal, that isn't true. It's more that Duluth had it easy the past three years.

"We're up a little bit from the past few years, but this is probably more of an average year," Kleist said. "The past three years have been below normal and now I would say we are on pace for a relatively typical year for water main breaks."

From left, Aaron Bohjola, Brice Aikin and Jeff Gfeller work to fix a water main on Arrowhead Road. Tyler Schank / News TribuneSo what causes a water main to break?

"So, this time of year, the frost is anywhere from 4-6 feet deep, so the frost is getting close to our water mains that are typically 7-8 feet deep and as the temperature swings from warm to cold or cold to warm, the ground shifts just a little bit," Kleist said. "That very slight shifting is enough to cause a water main break because our infrastructure is so old and getting close to the end of its lifespan. The mains are relatively fragile and just a small shift in the frost or the ground is enough to break them."

Temperatures swing even more as spring gets closer, causing the ground to move a little more as the frost comes out, resulting in even more breaks.

"It's also challenging because the snow starts to melt and we get that normal snowmelt runoff, which can sometimes hide or mask a water main break," Kleist said. "When it's dry in the summer or relatively dry mid-winter and a main breaks, you see the water and it's pretty obvious, but in March when everything is thawing out, it's not as easy to see."

When a water main breaks, Kleist said it can take up to 10 hours to fix and residents in the area of the break are without water during that time.

"Typically, the actual time to excavate is anywhere from four to six hours just to get down to the pipe and break through the frost. The time to repair the pipe is an hour or two, and the time to fill the hole back up is a few more hours," he said. "So the average job is eight or 10 hours depending on conditions."

But before crews can start digging, they have to find out where the break is. Kleist said it's usually obvious as to the general location, but crews have to pinpoint where the break is before digging.

"We have crews that are specially equipped with ground sensing microphones and computers that hook on to water main valves or hydrants and they can scan the mains using a sound wave technology to pinpoint where the leaks or breaks are," Kleist said.

This year has been slightly more challenging when it comes to pinpointing the breaks due to the heavy snow cover.

"Just finding a valve or finding a break requires moving a lot of snow just to get to the bare ground," Kleist said. "It's moving a little slower than typical but folks have been very understanding. We do appreciate the public's patience."

A Valentine's Day mess

On Valentine's Day, neighbors Jolayne Skoglund and Elsie Stauty woke up to a very unwanted Valentine's Day surprise: ankle-deep water throughout their homes. The two women live in a side-by-side, one level duplex on the 200 block of S. 60th Ave. W. and rushing water from a water main break behind their homes flooded their entire building.

Muddied water occupies Jolayne Skoglund's entryway Thursday evening. Tyler Schank / News Tribune"I woke up around 4 o'clock in the morning to go to the bathroom and woke up to ankle-deep water in the house," Skoglund said. "So then I was running around the house trying to figure out where the water was coming from."

Skoglund said she ended back in her bedroom and could hear the water. When she looked out her window she saw it rushing under the snow in the yard and hitting her side of the duplex.

"It was literally hitting the wall of my house and the water was up to right below my windowsill. It sounded like a small creek," Skoglund said. "This thing had to been going for hours and hours before anybody even noticed it."

The muddy water left red dirt staining the linoleum floors everywhere it dried.

"It made a mess," Stauty said. "There is dirt in every nook and cranny."

Stauty said she woke up around 6 a.m. and when she got out of bed a little groggy, it didn't take long to wake up.

"The water was so cold," Stauty said. "It woke me right up."

Stauty called her son right away and he came down to help get the water out of the house and wipe it up so she could at least walk around the house without worrying about falling on the slippery floor.

"At first the water just kept coming and coming. I don't know how many pails of water (my son) took out," Stauty said.

It wasn't just a bad day for Skoglund and Stauty — Valentine's Day was exceptionally terrible for water main breaks in the city. There were five being worked on, all between 40th Avenue West and the Morgan Park neighborhood.

"Typically, one or two is not uncommon, three is a pretty busy day and five is a bit more than normal," Kleist said. "We were maxed out as far as our staff's capacity, but we were able to complete all the work on time and correctly. But that was more main breaks than normal."

Reporting Water Main Breaks

To report a water main break call:

• (218) 730-4130 during business hours

• (218) 730-4100 after hours

Staff is available 24/7 to come out and investigate a possible water main break.

"Just call it in and let us know," said Duluth public works utility operations supervisor Chris Kleist. "We really appreciate homeowner reports and it helps us a lot."

In the winter, the extra water on the ground creates slippery, hazardous conditions. The public is asked to use caution in these areas.

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 720-4172