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Deep freeze drives up Wauwatosa's maintenance costs

Water main breaks alone have cost more than $80,000

Jan. 30, 2014

Another round of dangerously cold weather is starting to be felt in spending as water mains break, salt consumption rises and city crews work longer hours, City Administrator Jim Archambo said.

Water main breaks have reached 16 this month, Water Utility Superintendent Jim Wojcehowicz said, with five days left in the month. An average number for January is 14.

With each break typically costing $5,000 to repair, Wojcehowicz said the utility had already spent more than $80,000 in the new year fixing broken water pipes.

If you have to bring in a contractor with special equipment, the cost of a broken water main rises. "It starts clicking pretty fast," Archambo said.

The city budget begins in January, so Wojcehowicz said his department is OK so far, but if water mains continue to break at above-average rates, he'll feel the pain around year's end, or even before that.

Right now the concern is "getting out of this cold streak," he said.

Changing temperatures

Cold by itself is bad enough, but temperature fluctuations — cold, warm, cold — causes the ground to move, not only breaking pipes but causing roads to crumble.

"What it means for us is probably a bumper-crop of pot holes when it thaws," said Public Works Director William Porter.

"It's like driving over a washboard," Archambo said.

After one particularly rough ride on the Menomonee Parkway, Archambo got a piece of advice from his spouse. "My wife said, 'Don't drive on this road again.' It's that bad."

Lots of salt

Porter said the city is using a lot of salt on the roads, which, again, can become a problem late in the year.

"It's only the end of January, and we're on a calendar-year budget, so I've got to have money for February and March, but also November and December later this year."

The extreme cold is "going to have an effect on our maintenance costs this spring," Archambo said. "We're going to probably end up not only buying more salt, but ending up shorter on salt at the end of the season. We're probably going to end up dipping into the contingency fund to buy salt again, which I don't like to do ... (but) you gotta do what you gotta do."

Too, too cold

It's been so cold that the Department of Public Works, which introduced a pilot anti-freezing program a few months ago — applying salt brine in advance of a storm to prevent the pavement from freezing when the storm arrives — hasn't been able to use it.

"When it's too cold, you don't do it, because it doesn't work," Archambo said.

Fire and police are affected as well.

"You could end up with frozen hydrants that you may only find when you actually go to a fire," he said.

Even police officers doing traffic stops are affected, he added.

"We're going to have challenges," Archambo said.

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