On an all-too-typical chilly morning last week, Kenmore crews were called to fix three breaks in just one stretch of water main pipe under the 2600 block of Elmwood Avenue.
“Any change, any ground that freezes, any movement can cause a slight crack, and then you’ve got a leak,” explained Andrew Mang, superintendent of public works in the one-square-mile village where the underground pipes are cast iron and 100 years old. “They’d make a repair, get it all set and ready to go, turn the water on and another break would occur.”
That’s a problem plaguing every part of the county during this especially cold winter.
Water main breaks caused by harsh temperatures have kept crews busy around the clock throughout the region, as the frozen ground creates pressure on the pipes. Many of the water pipes in the county are a century old and easily prone to cracking as freezing cold water rushes through and the ground encasing them freezes, thaws and shifts.
And the many hours spent fixing those leaks is creating pressure on budgets already strained by overtime shifts for plow drivers and unexpected purchases of road salt.
“Right off the bat, we’ve dug ourselves a pretty good hole here,” said Wesley C. Dust, executive engineer with the Erie County Water Authority, which maintains 3,500 miles of main water pipes and is the biggest of more than 20 water companies serving county residents.
In January, the county water authority responded to eight leaks a day, or 62 percent more than normal. That meant paying 77 percent more in overtime than it did during the average first month over the last decade.
Every day that month, the county authority lost an average of 3 million gallons of water – roughly equivalent to five Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In Buffalo, crews responded to two water main breaks every day in January, or 131 percent more than the January average during the previous two years.
Over the last decade, the Town of Tonawanda, which has its own water department, has repaired an average of 300 water main breaks every year. In just the first two months of 2014, the town is poised to reach 200 breaks.
“We’re looking at probably a record year for breaks,” said Kirk Rowland, acting director of water resources in the Town of Tonawanda. “That’s going to hurt our budget big time.”
Water main breaks are typically detected by water department employees who see a spike in water use. Sometimes it is police officers, highway workers or other observant drivers who notice flooding in the road, or residents whose water pressure has fallen.
And winter is always a busy time for water departments, as the freezing and thawing of the ground creates pressure around the water mains, some more than 100 years old. That pressure causes leaks.
In addition, the cold temperatures this year have made the ground freeze at a greater depth than is typical, which also shifts the ground around the mains, creating more pressure, weakening the mains and causing leaks. Cold water brought in from the lake also causes leaks in old cast iron pipes, which cannot handle extremely cold water.
Pipes around Erie County range in age from 100 years old to five years old. Newer pipes made with synthetic materials are less susceptible to leaks than older pipes, Dust said.
The unpredictable freeze-thaw cycle has played havoc with Town of Tonawanda’s 385 miles of cast iron water pipes bedded in clay, which were installed in the late 1940s and early 1950s and are now being replaced with plastic pipes.
“It’s not conducive to getting hot and cold, hot and cold like this,” Rowland said.
Not only has there been a spike in leaks, it’s taking longer to fix them.
A four-hour job during normal conditions takes six or eight hours in the extreme cold.
That’s because it takes longer in the cold weather to find where the leak is. Water at the surface could emerge 10 or 20 feet away from where the break in the main is buried. The county water authority has been using leak detection crews that go out to help the repair crew find the leak.
Crews work more slowly in bitterly cold temperatures, and the ground takes longer to break up because it is frozen at a greater depth.
And before any digging can even begin, gas and electric workers – busy dealing with their own service issues – have to determine where those lines are.
“That adds time to the project,” Dust said.
The five, four-member crews that work for the county water authority have been so busy that the authority in January had to hire contractors to address the leaks,
So in addition to the staff overtime, the authority also has used up 65 percent of its annual budget dedicated for contractors.
The authority’s expense of $308,000 on contractors and 5,480 hours of overtime for its own workers went almost exclusively to repairing water main breaks, and a small percentage went to thawing frozen pipes, Dust said.
The authority, which is funded by ratepayers, expects it will pay the bills for this winter by transferring money from other accounts and then using reserves, if necessary.
In the Town of Tonawanda, crews worked around the clock in January, dealing with up to 20 breaks at a time.
The department anticipates emergency overtime for personnel, so this anomalous winter won’t have as much of an impact on that budget line, Rowland said.
Other water departments said they had budgeted for overtime, or will be able to pull money from reserves or transfer some from another account.
“We have to be prepared for the unexpected, we have to be prepared to maintain the system,” said Paul Whitmore, a spokesman for Veolia, which manages Buffalo’s water system.
Then there’s the cost of lost water, for which no one gets a bill.
“There’s 3 million gallons that are going into the ground, more than usual,” said Dust of the county water authority.
In Niagara Falls, sometimes the leaking water is difficult to detect, because it doesn’t emerge on the surface but dumps into a creek instead, said Paul Drof, executive director of the Niagara Falls Water Board.
The city uses sounding devices to try to find them.
The major costs related to water main breaks won’t disappear with the warmer weather.
That’s when the restoration work begins, when crews that fixed water main breaks in the freezing cold go back to backfill excavated areas with stone and replace concrete, pave the road and fix lawns.
The restorations will be twice as large – and twice as expensive – because the frost upheaves pavement more in colder weather, Dust said.
Tonawanda officials had budgeted $280,000 for restoration, but Rowland expects to spend double that amount. Costs for parts such as clamps and sleeves are also way up, he said.
That means the department may have to shift funds intended this year for other improvements or equipment purchases, he said.
“We just have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “We’ll do it. It’s happened to us before.”
Then there’s the chance that another series of water main breaks will strain budgets if the summer is extremely warm and dry.
“We usually get a break season in August,” Rowland said. “That’ll hurt us, too.”