Frigid weather and shifting soil bring significant increase in Topeka water main breaks

Topeka water distribution crew members responded Thursday to water main break sites that included this location at S.E. 9th and Jefferson. (Tim Hrenchir/The Capital-Journal)

Entering a ditch full of frigid water amid single-digit temperatures can be very uncomfortable, says Braxton Copley.

 

But Topeka water distribution crew members have done that repeatedly in the past week, when the city has seen as many water main breaks as it normally sees in a month, said Copley, deputy director of the city’s utilities department.

Copley said Wednesday he wanted the public to know how hard the roughly 30 members of those crews have been working to minimize the length of time Topekans go without water service.

“These guys are superstars,” he said.

The city as of Wednesday had seen 40 water main breaks in the previous week, compared to a monthly average of 44 breaks over the past 10 years, Copley said. Crews have been working around the clock to deal with those, he said.

Copley attributed the recent increase in breaks to the city’s having experienced unusually dry weather during the latter part of last year, followed this past week by low temperatures that caused the soil to shift.

City water mains, many of which are more than 100 years old, consequently have been breaking because they lack the resilience to hold up to changes in the soil movement, Copley said.

The city saw below-normal precipitation totals for each of the last four months of 2017, then Topeka temperatures fell to 9 degrees below zero Monday and 4 degrees below zero Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

The city posts notice of water main breaks on its Twitter account, where it alerted residents Wednesday morning that crews were dealing with breaks at 100 S.E. Gray, 731 S.W. Buchanan, S.E. 9th and Jefferson, and 2742 S.W. Indian Trail.

The recent spate of breaks illustrates the importance of adequately funding the replacement of utility infrastructure, Copley said.

Topeka governing body members in a 5-4 vote on Dec. 18 initially rejected a proposal to raise city utility rates, then reconsidered and approved that measure 6-3 because Councilwoman Elaine Schwartz — who leaves office next week — switching her vote from “no” to “yes.”

Schwartz said she changed her vote because it was the right thing to do.

“Our infrastructure is failing, and we need to get it fixed,” she said.

Copley said Wednesday the increase would help the utilities department be able to afford to replace additional water lines.

Still, he said, that department has a “staggering task” ahead, considering the city maintains 870 miles of water lines, and many are well past their useful life.

^

Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.

TopTankTickets
 

More