Pipe-Popping Spring Keeps Milwaukee Crews Hopping

In May, utility crews in Milwaukee fixed 107 mains, far exceeding monthly averages. What caused the outbreak? And is it a symptom of a national infrastructure problem?
Pipe-Popping Spring Keeps Milwaukee Crews Hopping
A series of 107 water main breaks in Milwaukee began with a leak in a 72-inch main outside a pumping station.

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“Out of sight, out of mind” might be one way to describe the nation’s leaky municipal water system. But when pipes begin popping like firecrackers on the Fourth of July, people tend to take notice.

So it was for the City of Milwaukee this spring when 33 mains let loose the third weekend of May. By Wednesday the following week, the number hit 76; reports of 82 breaks were quickly revised to 92. For the month, the utility fixed about 107 mains — far exceeding the monthly May average of 16.

The beginning of a pipe crisis
The series of events began the morning of May 17 after crews identified a leak in a 72-inch main outside the Texas Avenue Pumping Station, which relays water from Lake Michigan to the Howard Avenue Water Treatment Plant on the city’s south side. Crews closed off the line to prevent damage to the pumping station, and at 11 a.m. shut down the treatment plant as well.

Capacity was ratcheted up at the northside Linnwood Water Treatment Plant and pressure was increased to provide water to the city and surrounding communities. What followed were breaks in water mains on Milwaukee’s north and northwest side.

“We’ve been working around the clock to identify those leaks, to repair them,” Carrie Lewis, Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent, told the Journal Sentinel. “The Department of Public Works, street folks are right behind us and they were all weekend.”

X-rays of the bituminous-coated 72-inch steel pipe revealed two 3/8-inch holes at the heart of the problem.

Like many municipalities, Milwaukee is not immune to aging infrastructure with at least half the May breaks occurring in piping installed during the housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s. In the first five months of 2014, the utility repaired 724 breaks — 194 more than the annual average of 530 — at a cost of $10,000 each.

System upgrade plans
Established in 1871, Milwaukee Water Works is the largest and oldest operating water utility in Wisconsin, providing service to over 860,000 customers in 16 communities.

The city-owned utility is responsible for maintaining 1,961 miles of water mains from 4 to 60 inches in diameter and 351 miles of 16- to 60-inch transmission lines. In the past two years the city has replaced about 10 miles of pipe at a cost of a $1 million a mile.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told WISN 12 News the city hopes to step up the replacement rate to 15 miles. But Lewis doubts the effort will be enough.

“If you do 15 miles a year it’s going to take you a while to get through the whole 2,000, and by the time you get to the end, you’re going to start all over again,” she says.

So while normalcy might be returning to Wisconsin’s largest city, it will come at a price. City officials place the repair bill for the May outbreak at nearly $2 million, according to a June 1 report from the TMJ4 news team. Barrett says most work should be done by the first week of July.


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