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Minnesota cities see unprecedented number of frozen water lines

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Officials across northern and southeastern Minnesota are telling residents to keep their water running to avoid freezing pipes and help prevent more water main breaks. This comes as cities declare water main emergencies and crews continuously scramble to thaw lines across the region.

The widespread problem comes after most of the state experienced a record number of days below zero this winter, making a historically deeper frost across Minnesota. This has caused underground water and sewer pipes to freeze. The deepening frost can cause pipes to shift and snap or freeze solid, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

“The worst, if I remember right, was 38 (frozen pipes) in 2008,” city of Winona water superintendent Bob Dunn told Winona Daily News. “It was amazing we had that many back then. It’s above and beyond that now.”

The city of Winona has experienced two water main breaks – caused by frost – and numerous frozen water lines. On Monday, Winona Senior High School and 20-plus households were without water after two water main breaks in the city, according to the Winona Daily News. Students at the school were off for Presidents Day so classes were not disrupted. The water line was repaired by 5:30 p.m. and classes resumed normally Tuesday.

Corey Lubovich, director of utility operations manager in Hibbing, told the Duluth News Tribune, “We’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve already thawed or are thawing 94 services this winter. A normal winter is 15 or 20. And we are still getting more every day.”

The Ely Utility Commission has been called to thaw at least 74 water lines so far this winter, according to The Ely Echo.

"We've thawed some three times," Harold Langowski, operations director for the city, told The Ely Echo. "We have three thaw rigs and there's been days we've been using all three."

While some cities are paying the cost to thaw lines, others are not. The city of Ely charges $100 per hour during normal business hours, and the price goes up from there. In some areas, residents have to hire private contractors, which can cost upward of $500 an hour, according to The Ely Echo.

"I tell people to check the temperature of the water in the faucet nearest to the water service line. If it's at 35 degrees you should start running your water because it's not long after that it freezes up," Langowski told The Ely Echo. "And you need to run the water until the ice comes off the lakes, which hopefully this year will be in April instead of mid- to late May.”

The city of Ely has declared a “water main emergency” after experiencing an unprecedented number of frozen water lines this winter. Ely officials are asking residents to “run water at least a pencil width size continuously from one sink until spring or until notified by the City of Ely.” The city of Ely states on its website “water and sewer bill adjustments will be made … using average winter usage from previous years.” Some other cities are also providing water bill adjustments.

More problems could be expected with warmer temperatures this week and into the start of spring. Howard Jacobson, Duluth’s water and gas supply manager, told the Duluth News Tribune above-freezing temperatures may briefly slow the problem, but can also cause the ground to shift rapidly and prompt more waterline breaks.

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