Water main breaks take toll on repair crews

Water main break (WISH Photo/Kevin Ratermann)
Water main break (WISH Photo/Kevin Ratermann)

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — The winter season has been rough on Evansville and other cities with antiquated water infrastructure, and for those whose job it is to keep clean water flowing to local homes and businesses, it has taken a physical and mental toll.

In Dave Lichlyter’s 13 years with the Evansville Water & Sewer Utility, this winter has been the worst he’s seen. He’s worked numerous double shifts, often below ground in subfreezing temperatures, searching for cracks or breaks in cast iron pipes that predate most current local residents’ birth.

“Downtown, where the valves are ancient, it makes it difficult,” Lichlyter told the Evansville Courier & Press. “The concrete roads make it hard to pinpoint the links, even the bad ones. It makes it really hard for the simple fact that corrosion on gates makes it harder” to try to get the water shut down.

Sixteen-hour days aren’t unusual for utility crews during the peak of winter cold or summer heat, but “I can’t remember any seasons this bad,” Lichlyter said. “Exhaustion was a big factor this year, being out in the weather and the long hours.”

More than any other recent season, winter of 2012-13 has exposed the age and fragility of local water mains. Much of the nation has been enveloped in bitter cold, and problems have not been unique to the Tri-State. The New York Times this month reported that cities across the country have struggled to keep drinking water flowing through century-old systems.

The issue also is taking a toll on budgets, in addition to pipes and the well-being of repair crews.

For this winter season, Evansville had seen 289 water main breaks as of mid-February, well ahead of prior years. The cost continues to climb. As of Feb. 19, the city utility had run up $430,000 in bills for employee overtime, contractors and supplies related to winter repairs.

Utility Director Allen Mounts said that figure doesn’t include the value of ready-to-drink water the utility lost due to broken mains and strain on the city’s treatment plant. Based on wholesale prices, the city estimates it lost about $400,000 worth of inventory during the rough winter season.

Evansville and Henderson, Ky., both pull water from the Ohio River and treat it before distributing it to homes and businesses. Officials in both cities said water main breaks were exacerbated this winter when freezing water began flowing through the ancient cast iron pipes.

“We’ve had a comparable number of breaks to Evansville, said Tom Williams, general manager of the Henderson Water Utility. “Our system is about a fifth the size of Evansville’s and in January we had about 45 breaks.

“They all seemed to happen when the temperature plummeted the first time. We haven’t had as many since.”

Henderson workers carried more than 200 hours of overtime during only one January weekend, an expense to the city of about $50,000.

Utility officials in Princeton, Ind., and Owensboro, Ky., said winter has posed challenges, but not to the same degree as for cities that pump drinking water from the Ohio River.

“Ours comes from underground wells, where the temperature is consistently 50-55 degrees, as opposed to Evansville pulling in basically ice water from the Ohio River,” said J.B. Brines, Princeton Water Department superintendent.

Owensboro’s drinking water comes from an underground aquifer, despite the city’s Ohio River location. Mayor Ron Payne said many of Owensboro’s downtown water mains were replaced as the riverfront was redeveloped over the last few years.

Sonya Dixon, an Owensboro Municipal Utilities spokeswoman, said the city sees some breaks as the ground freezes and thaws, but this winter has seen “no more than any other typical season.”

Mounts said there is no fast and easy fix for Evansville’s brittle water infrastructure.

Evansville’s water treatment plant on Waterworks Road dates to 1895. It treats millions of gallons of water per day before distributing it to about 60,000 customers in Vanderburgh, Gibson and Warrick counties.

The utility has about 1,000 miles of water mains and 6,000 hydrants. It also has eight storage tanks; the most recent being added was a 500,000-gallon tank at the University of Southern Indiana completed in 2010.

Cast iron pipe was the material of choice when the city’s first water lines were installed in the late 1800s. Mounts said weather conditions aren’t the only factors that can cause these lines to break — road vibrations and heavy truck traffic on busy roads such as the Lloyd Expressway can contribute to breaks at any time of the year.

As mains are replaced, the city is installing iron and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

“The failure rate on them isn’t as great,” Mounts said. “They are more weather-resistant, and they don’t corrode inside. You don’t have the natural erosion you have with cast iron. … One university’s study places the failure rate on cast iron at 28 or 29 per 100 miles, and we’re way above that. It’s about four per 100 miles for PVC.”

The utility in recent weeks has installed PVC water mains along Hogue Road, on Evansville’s West Side, as part of a replacement project. Mounts hopes to accelerate work such as that in the future.

But he said the city must weigh its obvious water infrastructure needs vs. local residents’ ability to pay even higher rates.

Evansville’s water rates remained flat in 2011 and 2012, and “there were few, if any, water main replacements that happened during that period,” Mounts said.

A rate increase that went into effect a year ago this month took the average residential rate from $14.12 to $16.68, followed by a jump this year to $18.10 and to $19.52 in 2015. Some of the revenue is for water main replacement, but in total, it will only cover about 4 ½ miles during the three years of increases.

“It’s not enough,” Mounts said.

He said Evansville needs to develop a stronger replacement plan for water mains. Louisville, Ky., has a strategy to replace 1½ percent of its mains per year. If Evansville did something similar, with 1,000 miles, it would replace about 15 miles per year.

“At the end of 40 years, you would replace 600 miles,” Mounts said.

It would be a costly fix — Mounts said the cost to replace a mile’s worth of water line in “today’s dollars” is about $750,000.

However, he also said there also is a cost of continued inaction.

“What will continue to happen is the number of water main breaks will continue to escalate, and it will escalate at an exponential scale if you have another bad winter like this,” Mounts said. “If you have warmer (winter) temperatures, it might not be much of an issue.

“But you’re delaying it another year … The risk the community will have is the potential loss of water service of a major magnitude at some point, (possibly having to) shut down an industry because we can’t fix it fast enough.”

Additionally, Mounts said Evansville should consider a second water treatment plant that pulls water from an alternative source. He cited a couple of reasons — one, if a major toxic spill occurred in the Ohio River, the city would have a second location from which to draw water.

“The second benefit to us is that if it was connected with our primary treatment plant water, we could blend the water temperatures together, and it would create less of a shock on the system (in the event of a bitter cold winter like this one),” Mounts said.

Need for study

Mounts said he wants to engage a firm to do some preliminary planning — how big a secondary treatment plant would be and where it would be located, for example. He said the utility has funding in place for such a study, and the hiring would be subject to the Water & Sewer Utility Board’s approval.

“It would take several months, maybe upwards of a year to do,” Mounts said. “The next phase would be the design, and that would take probably another year or so.”

The American Water Works Association is forecasting that the nation will face one of its largest infrastructure challenges over the next several decades because so many of the pipes in the ground are at the end of their life, Mounts said. “It’s not just Evansville, it’s any older city.”

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke agreed with Mounts that issues in the city’s water utility are reaching critical mass. One reason, he said, is because the city has invested substantial time in recent years on bringing its sewer system in line with federal requirements.

The city is still waiting for Environmental Protection Agency approval of its sewer plan. Once that issue is settled, Winnecke said the city will place more emphasis on long-term upgrades for water infrastructure. But he said he’s spoken with Mounts “on several occasions” about ideas Mounts has in mind for the water system.

“We’re starting to come to grips as a community with the fact we have to improve our aging infrastructure, and none of it is inexpensive. It comes at a price,” Winnecke said.

Winnecke praised the efforts of utility repair crews to keep the system operating this winter.

“They have been extraordinarily professional. They have done a fantastic job this year, and the public has been patient. They understand the harsh winter. People have been inconvenienced, and they have been patient and understanding.”

Evansville’s water system woes this winter have not gone unnoticed in surrounding cities that have not had the same degree of problems. Brines, with Princeton’s water department, said he’s followed Evansville’s situation with interest, and has been thankful his community does not have to draw its water from the Ohio River.

“I feel for those guys,” Brines said of workers such as Lichlyter, who worked all those double shifts in freezing temperatures.

“It’s no fun being out there. But we’ve been extremely lucky.”

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