Rate hikes an option for cities dealing with water main breaks - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Rate hikes an option for cities dealing with water main breaks

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Dubuque crews work on a water main break repair Jan. 28, 2014 Dubuque crews work on a water main break repair Jan. 28, 2014
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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Eastern Iowans could see their water rates go up. That's one option on the table for cities as they deal with costly water main breaks.

The deep, fast freezes this winter have meant a higher-than-average amount of water main breaks and, therefore, expensive repairs.

The City of Dubuque, for example, is already around 40 percent over what it budgeted this fiscal year for water main breaks.

At this time last year, Dubuque crews had responded to 48 water main breaks. This year, it's almost double that amount, at 82, as of Thursday. That includes five breaks just on Wednesday.

The breaks comes as deep, fast freezes move the ground, causing the pipes to shift and crack.

Dubuque plans for 70 water main breaks per fiscal year, at $5,000 per repair. Already, it's well over that $350,000 budget.

Raising the water rate is one way to recoup costs, but city water department manager Bob Green said that's a last resort he's not yet considering.

"We do carry monies in reserves for emergency situations such as this or other activities," Green said. "We do have capital improvement projects that we could reschedule for the next year. There's other options that we can use to offset the cost for these repairs at this time, without implementing a rate increase."

Dubuque isn't out of the woods just yet.

The city's budget runs through the fiscal year, which ends in June, and spring thaw can bring a lot of water main breaks, too.

Just as a fast, deep freeze shifts the ground, so does a quick thaw. If spring warmth comes on gradually, however, that could prevent some water main breaks -- and save some money.

"If we see a slow warming condition, that usually is gentle to the pipes," Green said. "The pipes are allowed to be able to absorb the flexibility that needs to be for it not to break."

As the city repairs broken water mains, it uses a more durable material to replace old pipes.

Up until the late 1960s and early 1970s, Green said, water main pipes were made out of cast iron, which is much more brittle than what's used today for water infrastructure, which is called ductile iron pipe.

Green said he appreciates water customers' patience, as a repair may force them to go temporarily without water.

The frost line is normally between 3 feet and 3.5 feet deep, Green said, but crews are now finding pockets of ground with frost extending 5 feet deep.

Water mains are located about 6 feet beneath the surface, though Green said the water in them is constantly moving, which prevents freezing.

Even without water rate hikes, people can still pay a price if their own pipes freeze and burst.

Green recommends keeping areas around water pipes and meters relatively warm, in order to avoid damage.

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