Breaking water mains a big problem for Saskatoon

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The City of Saskatoon has had a record number of water main breaks this year, leaving many residents without water for days at a time. In some cases, the repairs have taken up to a week.

According to information on saskatoon.ca, experiencing broken water mains isn’t exactly a new thing. The city expects that these pipes will break from time to time because of a variety of factors.

Water main breaks generally result from corrosion, ground movement or the expansion and contraction of pipes that generally come from the extreme ups and downs of Saskatchewan weather. You’d think some brilliant engineer would have invented a piping system that wouldn’t be so fragile in our climate, right? Technology has yet to fully address this issue.

The area I live in is roughly 30 years old, and up until now my block has not had a water main break — until this year. Within the last two months, our water has been turned off three times due to the same water main breaking several times.

When this happens, city staff come out and close the valves in the street to stop the flow of water until the pipe can be repaired, which means city residents get to play the waiting game for running water to bathe, wash dishes and clothes as well as — most importantly, it seems — flush toilets.

When a water main breaks, water usually finds its way to the surface but occasionally may find its way into the sanitary or storm sewer mains, or may absorb into the ground and eventually seep into basements or cause sump pumps to operate, according to saskatoon.ca. This happened to my neighbours and made a very shitty mess — pun intended.

Saskatoon typically experiences one or two water main breaks per day at this time of year, when the weather is above zero and then below freezing the next day.

During 2014, this average of one to two breaks per day increased to as high as 15 breaks in one day as a new record. Saskatoon is simply not equipped to handle this extreme number of breaks, causing a backlog for workers to fix the breaks in a seemingly timely fashion.

As found on saskatoon.ca, the city empathizes with residents and businesses who have gone days without running water — though I question what they are really doing to help the problem. Or rather, I wonder what the city could do in the future to be better prepared for when this happens again. Because it will happen again.

On their website, the city says, “Water trailers will continue to be provided within 8 hours” following a break and yet the city only has four water trailers for the entire city. That’s just not enough in times like these.

When our water main broke for the first time this year, we were lucky to have a water trailer provided. I’m able bodied enough to have walked out on the icy streets in order to fill jugs with water — though I can’t say the same for the older residents on my street.

The second and third times our water was turned off, no water truck showed up on our block. I wasn’t the only resident peeved by this inconvenience, but the city did respond with some form of solution.

As reported on Mar.7 on CTV News, the city decided to dive into its water and sewage budget to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in order to deliver water jugs to areas on the waitlist for city water trailers, with more than 350 jugs delivered to homes. And these numbers are from over two weeks ago.

Trent Schmidt, a worker for the city’s public works department said in an interview with CTV News that, “It’s not a process or program we normally do. It’s just with the extreme conditions, the extreme amount of breaks we’re dealing with right now, we thought we had to do something more than just let people wait for the next available water trailer.”

I know it’s a bit whiney to demand clean water, especially because there are those who rarely or never have access to clean drinking water in other parts of the world, but it’s been a problem nonetheless for Saskatoon residents this winter.

Another resident of Saskatoon, Jenna Walde, also succumbed to a water main break this year.

“We kind of made a big joke about it, filling jars with water from friends houses so we had something to drink. We called it apocalypse mode,” Walde said. “But our house was a mess. We left dishes for days and couldn’t do laundry.”

As per the agreement, the City of Saskatoon gave Walde’s residence three Culligan jugs every three days. But in Walde’s case, her residence is equipped with more than one suite. As a result, she gave one of her water jugs to the basement suite in her home.

“It takes half a jug just to flush the toilet! We allowed ourselves one flush a day, but this went over the weekend and some friends came to town, so you can imagine how nasty that got,” Walde said.

In total, Walde went without running water for seven days. As a full time student with an already busy schedule, having no water was an added stressor for Walde.

As another alternative to help residents, the city decided to offer free admission for residents who are experiencing a water outage due to a water main break or frozen water connection to use the shower facilities at the City Leisure Centre closest to them.

In such cases, residents require identification or a recent utility bill showing their address, which will be compared to the list of homes affected by a water outage according to saskatoon.ca.

This works for those who are able bodied, have transportation and have the time to go to a Leisure Centre to shower or use the washroom. What about the people who don’t have transportation? Or those who can’t afford to take the bus to and from a facility to use water in one way or another?

Since Walde’s doesn’t live near a Leisure Centre, this solution didn’t work.

“It was kind of useless,” Walde said. “But at least [the city] tried.”

In truth, the City of Saskatoon has made a seemingly good effort to help residents deal with water issues this winter, though that certainly won’t stop residents like myself from bitching about it.

Hopefully Saskatoon will plan better for water main breaks in the future — and will account for this potential cost in the budget. In the mean time, residents should always be reminded that winter is coming — and lasts for a long time — whether we like it or not.

It’s probably best to be prepared with filled water jugs in your home, just in case things start to fall apart again.


Graphic: Stephanie Mah/Graphics Editor

  • Lord Business

    Our water line from the city’s water main to our house is frozen and has been so for three weeks. For 2 1/2 of those weeks we have had a hose hooked up to our gracious neighbour’s outside tap and run over to our’s so that we can have water in our house…this solution has frozen three times as well and we have had to take the hoses off, drag them into our house, thaw them out and hook them back up. The city will not come and do it and they will not come and thaw out our line, telling us instead that we need to wait for the ground to thaw around the line on it’s own. Given the weather this year, that may take util May.

  • Darryl

    I refuse to believe that the water main breaks are due to extreme weather changes. I’ve lived in three other Canadian provinces, and they too have extreme weather changes, especially eastern Quebec where it can snow in early June one day and remain on the ground but then be too hot the next day to wear anything long-sleeved. I have never experienced or heard about water main breaks in those provinces. In my opinion, the urban and city planners likely cut corners when repairing, and the original pipe lines are likely of poor quality considering the state of the province and city (have-not province) when they were originally constructed. In any case, its deplorable that city officials budget so poorly that basics such as ploughing roads regularly as a storm is occurring, salting roads prior to or after snow fall (when its not too cold), and maintenance of water systems is not happening, especially since this province is booming economically. Its unacceptable. I would go so far to say that this city is not up to some basic standards of living regarding a modern or industrialized nation.

    • angry foodie

      Weather assuredly has something to do with it. You can refuse to believe in the laws of physics all you want, I bet you don’t believe that potholes are caused by the weather neither.

      Your comparison to eastern Quebec betrays your misunderstanding of the issue.

      It is not about a temperature shift over one or two days. It is about the annual range of temperatures, and more importantly, the persistence of those temperatures.

      Any time in eastern Quebec where it is -1 on Monday and +25 on Wednesday is not going to affect the ground.

      It is in Saskatoon, where we can see 30 days with an average temperature below -25, where an annual range between high and low temperature can be as large as 80 degrees, where the ground will shift the most. It is about how deep the frost goes underground. A colder than normal winter (such as this one was) can move the frostline down a couple of inches (at most), but that is all you need to create a break.

      Other factors include the water in the ground at the time of freezing. More water in the ground will lead to more underground expansion which will lead to more breaks. Basic physics.

      Explain to me how plowing when a storm is occurring is anything less than a waste of resources? Seems to me like washing your truck before off-roading in the mud…

  • angry foodie

    You really think engineers have not figured out a way to prevent water main breaks?

    Of course they have. However, and this is understandable, the costs of implementing a no-break sewage system in Saskatoon are so cost-prohibitive (probably the cost of another 20 or so bridges) that the value of such an investment might never be actualized.