Winter takes aim at water mains


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The Iowa City winter has stirred up as much trouble underground as it has on the surface.

This year has been one of the worst years for water-main maintenance in the city’s history.

So far, there have been 34 breaks in the city’s water system. There were 28 water main breaks in January, a number that tied the all-time record for the town. Six breaks have occurred thus far in February.

University of Iowa junior Sarah Hadley has experienced the problem firsthand.

Hadley, who lives on North Johnson Street, thought the water in her apartment would only be shut off for a few hours following a broken water main.

But the problem took longer to repair.

The broken main left the tenants without running water for more than a day and after the problem was fixed, there were lasting problems with a few of the taps.

“The water in the kitchen was trickling out brown,” Hadley said. “On the first day, I couldn't shower or brush my teeth. It was a gum and mouthwash day,”

Some of the residents were forced to stay with friends while the water main was repaired.

The water main breaks were caused by frigid temperatures; this winter ranks as the ninth-coldest in Iowa in 121 years.

“The low temperatures and deep frost cause the ground to shift, resulting in some of the water mains breaking,” said Carol Sweeting, the information coordinator at the Iowa City Water Treatment Center.

The University of Iowa campus hasn’t been exempt from the problem.

Cold temperatures and high winds caused a sprinkler pipe to burst in the Burge Marketplace.

“In our investigation, we found that some insulation had fallen down, allowing extremely cold air to penetrate that area of the building,” said Jeffrey Aaberg, the director of facilities and operations for UI Housing and Dining.

The amount of time it takes to fix a water main break varies. Typically, fixing and backfilling the main takes around 12 hours, and replacing the pavement must wait until spring.

“The trick is finding enough resources to replace them as they age,” said Rick Fosse, the city’s Public Works director.

More problems could be on the way.

With this winter’s heavy snowfall and as warmer temperatures approach, city officials urge citizens who live near storm drains to make sure they are not filled with snow. If they are, the drains will back up and flood. When temperatures drop at night, the flooded drains could refreeze.

“There is not much we can do to prevent the mains from breaking,” Fosse said. “All we can do is replace them as quickly as possible.”

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