Big climb in water main breaks grabs MUD's attention
Candelario Casas woke early Monday to an unwanted surprise in the basement of his home at 34th and H Streets: 3 inches of standing water.
For blocks around his neighborhood, residents awoke to their own messes of water and muck, caused by the most serious in a recent run of water main breaks across the city.
Between Friday and Sunday, as water use soared along with temperatures, utilities crews in Omaha were called to nearly a dozen breaks. Most were relatively minor and didn't cause much damage, but the frequency of the problems has officials on notice.
Between May 1 and July 31, there have been 178 water main breaks, more than triple the 56 breaks that occurred over the same period last year.
Most of those happened in the sweltering month of July: 109 breaks, compared with 29 last year.
“We always have main breaks,” said Mark Doyle, senior vice president at MUD. “It's just that we're seeing a higher number than usual, there's no doubt about that.”
Two days after water soaked Casas' home and several businesses, including offices of Nebraska Beef, MUD isn't sure exactly what caused the break. But Doyle said the increase in water main problems is likely due to a combination of factors. With extreme heat causing soil to dry and crack, and more water pushing through the system as residents try to keep things green and cool, the city's water lines — especially the oldest ones — are under a lot of pressure.
Most of the breaks have occurred east of 72nd Street, where some of the cast-iron mains are close to 100 years old.
“With the dry ground, and then it cracks — and now you've got a void and that might be under a heavy pipe,” Doyle said. “It doesn't take much of a move to crack a pipe like that.”
Doyle said utility officials still believe its mains are up to the challenging conditions. He said ordering customers to cut back on water use wouldn't make much of a difference in the number of breaks.
“Our mains can take high pumpage,” he said. “They're designed for it.”
MUD is systematically replacing older mains and puts mains that have had repeat problems at the top of the list. Others get bumped up if they coincide with the city's ongoing sewer system overhaul.
That's the case for the main at 36th and L near the Casas house, which broke seven years ago. Crews test for corrosion after every incident, MUD officials said, and that main didn't seem to have any major structural problems after the initial break. Now, however, it will get a more substantial fix.
Residents near 37th and Ida Streets in north Omaha also are in line for some extensive work. A break there Sunday morning was significant enough to call for a replacement of the entire main running near about nine homes. Those residents are on temporary water service and also will be seeing road work for a few weeks. Doyle said it's likely the entire street will be torn up and replaced.
It's too early to tell how much all of that work will cost.
Water main breaks come with two major types of costs: fixing the main and the street, and cleaning up the mess left behind for homeowners and businesses.
In 2011, repair costs ranged from about $400 to $100,000. So far this year, the highest single cost has been $88,000.
But Debra Schneider, MUD senior vice president and chief finance officer, warned that the costs are still being tallied on the most recent breaks.
“I'm guessing that as we see July close, you will absolutely see us over budget,” she said.
That means MUD will look for cost savings in other areas.
Meanwhile, the utility is paying for damage caused by water.
Last year, MUD paid out $499,478 to residents and businesses.
Through June, this year's total was far less: $83,099. But that number doesn't include costs from the latest string of problems.
Most of the cleanup has been fairly quick. For the 36th and L Streets break, Floyd Brunning, an associate partner at Paul Davis Restoration, said his company expected to be at the site for about a week for “cleaning, drying and demolition.”
MUD does not cover related costs, such as the day of business lost by Nebraska Beef as its water service was restored.
Smaller breaks have been handled before some residents were even aware of the problem.
On Saturday, Phyllis Wickwire called MUD after she noticed water running down the street near her home, near 39th and Summit Streets.
“They were right out here and they did a good job — they were on the ball,” she said.
Others, however, can face more serious situations.
A break early Tuesday flooded the basement of Tiny Treasures Learning Center at 33rd and Lake Streets, soaking computers, pool tables, furniture, filing cabinets and food supplies.
The day care's owner said closing the business, even for a few days, would be hard on parents and on her three full-time and three part-time employees. Crews finished repairs on the break Wednesday afternoon. She hoped to reopen today.
In South Omaha, where Casas family members had to evacuate their house, Candelario Casas' brother, Ernie, was trying to take it all in stride.
The real estate agent, he joked, never mentioned “that the house should come with a boat or something.”
Officials don't expect water main breaks to end anytime soon. On the first day of August, crews were called to three more.
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