Detroit residents, crews expect more main breaks as temperatures shift

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — For nearly two weeks, Julie Beutel and her northeast Detroit neighbors have gazed at a familiar sight tied to lingering winter cold: water flowing from an apparent main break.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department has worked to cordon off the area and provide salt while repairing dozens of other ruptures in arctic conditions, prioritizing the ones that leave residents without service.

Water flows out from an apparent break Thursday on Gateshead.

Beutel and her family haven't noticed any water pressure issues, and they understand the need to tackle a slew of other issues in city neighborhoods, but the scene outside still is frustrating.

"I feel like enough water has been gushing out that could have filled a whole lake," she said Friday.

Crews have been working around the clock this week to fix some of the city's 75 water main breaks.

The department has shifted staffing resources and activated more contractors to expedite repairs, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the DWSD.

But with the National Weather Service forecasting temperatures will fluctuate significantly through early next week, another round could emerge, he noted.

"Whenever there’s a shift like that, it could potentially cause pressure on the mains," Peckinpaugh said.

Among the breaks was an 8-inch water main at Interstate 94 and Rosa Parks Boulevard that led to flooding on a section of the freeway late Wednesday, forcing ramps to the Lodge Freeway to close for hours, the Michigan Department of Transportation reported.

Joe Rashid, executive director of East Warren Development Corp., said water main breaks had affected a four-to-five block stretch in his area.

"We’ve definitely had a fair amount of breaks and the city is working diligently to fix them, but the temperatures don’t help," Rashid said. "Some businesses are impacted so that's always a concern but we're excited to see infrastructure change with a new streetscape coming this spring that can help address this issue from repeating."

On Thursday, crews repaired 13 breaks, Peckinpaugh said. The total estimated repair time for the active breaks was 7-14 days, he added, and a boosted workforce increased the number of breaks fixed daily.

"The range is due to severity (whether we can cap the break or a section of pipe has to be replaced), size of pipe, proximity to other underground utilities, and COVID-19 (DWSD and our contractors have been impacted by the omicron variant)," he said in an email.

In an advisory this week, the water department noted extreme temperature changes — hot or cold — can cause pipes to contract and expand and result in ruptures, "especially in aging infrastructure."

"Unfortunately this time of year we see an increase in water main breaks due to frigid temperatures, further exacerbated by the sustained 20 degrees and below that we've experienced for several days and our aging infrastructure," Peckinpaugh said. "The average age of water mains is 95 years old."

A workman continues framing walls for a new building, braving the frigid 15-degree temperature along 8 Mile Road at Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

The region has not seen highs above freezing since Jan. 19, National Weather Service records show.

Temperatures so far this month have averaged nearly 5 degrees below normal, the weather service reported.

"This month we’ve just seen more of that arctic air pushing into southeast Michigan," said Megan Varcie, a meteorologist with the NWS station in White Lake Township. 

Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus plunged to zero degrees Thursday amid five consecutive days of lows in the single digits, according to the weather service. On Friday, the high was 24 and the low was about 11, according to the weather service. 

Frigid air is forecast through the weekend.

The mercury could top out in the teens Saturday, then rise into the 20s on Sunday as an arriving system brings the chance of snow showers, Varcie said.

Highs on Tuesday could rise into the low 40s, but "we'll see temperatures drop off again," she said.

The pattern of persistent cold sparking water main breaks in the city isn't unusual, officials said.

The water department reported 160 main breaks in January 2019, 43 in January 2020 and 131 main breaks last January.

"In February, the average over the past three years has been 220 water main breaks," the water department said in its advisory this week.

The 70-plus this week represents a small percentage of the city's system, which includes 2,700 miles of water main pipes, Peckinpaugh said.

In prioritizing repairs, the department first intends to address breaks disrupting service, then move on to those impacting transportation, including major thoroughfares.

Water rushes out from under the snow near Gateshead in Detroit, Thursday.

The department is in the midst of a $500 million capital improvement program to upgrade the city’s aging water and sewer systems, Peckinpaugh said.

Projects are in Cornerstone Village, Far West, Jefferson Chalmers, Midtown, Minock Park, North Rosedale Park and Rosedale Park neighborhoods.

Water issues can be reported to DWSD at (313) 267-8000 or by using the Improve Detroit app.

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed