Ely declares water main emergency
Area cities struggling to maintain flowing water
Keith Vandervort

ELY – The city of Ely has declared a water main emergency until further notice. It’s just the latest sign of the havoc that the winter of 2013-14 is playing with water infrastructure across the North Country.

With frost levels already in excess of seven feet and more subzero weather forecast for the upcoming week, the problem isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Homes and businesses in communities across the region have already endured frozen pipes, in some cases more than once. Frozen water lines even forced the closure of the Vermilion Country Charter School in Tower for at least two days this week.

But now it is city water mains that are increasingly experiencing freeze-up, and that’s why cities like Ely are asking homeowners to run their water continually, in hopes that a steady flow will prevent more damage.

The Ely Police Department first posted a notice on Facebook Tuesday afternoon, and Mayor Ross Petersen read a public service announcement at the beginning of the city council meeting that same evening. The council also approved an equipment purchase to help with the emergency.

Peterson said the city is asking residents to run the water in their homes “at a pencil-width-sized” stream from one sink continuously until spring or until notified by the city of Ely.

“We currently have four crews working around the clock to thaw frozen lines,” he said. “The city’s first priority is to thaw frozen mains, to provide continuous fire protection and to guard against water main breaks. Customer line thawing is taking place on a first-come, first-served basis.”

He said water and sewer bill adjustments will be made during the water main emergency using water usage averages from previous years.

Those who experience water problems should call 1-800-890-8713.

“We apologize for this inconvenience,” Peterson said, “but there is nothing the city can do about it and we’ll do the best we can.”

Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski asked the council for permission to immediately purchase an additional welder to aid the crews in thawing water pipes. Currently the city has two water-line thaw rigs, Langowski said.

One of the units is hooked up to the power line outside of a home and the other is a “pulse-jetter” that is hooked onto the water service and uses high-pressure hot water to open the services.

The welders currently used by the city include one on loan from St. Louis County and one on loan from Dick Rock Welding, according to Langowski.

“My concern is, with three to four crews going, the one that hooks onto the power line doesn’t put out the same amperage as portable welders so it does take quite a bit of time to thaw using that,” he said.

“This used welder became available. This person just purchased it from a rental company just last week,” he said. “It is a larger unit than what we currently have.” The cost for the unit and cables is $9,500. The council unanimously approved the purchase.

Langowski said there are currently about 20 residential customers on the waiting list for water line thawing. “The guys have worked through the weekend and actually started working 24 hours a day on Saturday,” he said.

“We have had three mains freeze, one last Thursday, one Monday morning and one that has been frozen since Saturday,” he said. “We are putting all our resources on those water mains to get those opened first. If an eight-inch main is to break you can imagine how big of an area we are going to put out of water. And we have about seven feet of frost to get through right now.”

He continued, “The water mains are the priority. We want to make sure that we can maintain fire protection. As soon as we can get one of those rigs off that water main we can get them on the service lines.” He said the service lines take about one to one-and-a-half hours each to thaw.

“With this other unit running, we should be able to get ahead of it rather quickly,” he said. “I’m hoping the list doesn’t get longer, but this is what we are up against.”

Langowski warned residents not to shut the water off even though temperatures may climb above freezing. “We will let the public know when to shut it off. Usually the rule of thumb is when the ice is coming off the lake,” he said.

“We are talking to those folks who have never had a problem before,”Petersen said. “Keep that water running.”

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