The winter that won't be forgotten
It's easy to take it for granted – turn on the tap, out comes water. But for dozens of people in Madison, the water has stopped.
"You can't flush the toilets, you can't wash the dishes, you can't wash clothes...brush your teeth, take a shower, all those things," says Ken Bavery, who lives on a cul-de-sac on Madison's east side.
Bavery has a frozen service lateral, which means that water in the pipe running from the main under the street to his home is frozen solid. He's been waiting for two days for a Madison Water Utility crew to come and thaw it out, but he's one of many customers on a growing list – dozens of frozen service calls are coming in every day. During most winters, it's just a handful. But this isn't most winters.
"It started brutal before Thanksgiving, and it just hasn't let up," Bavery says. "We think it's a heat wave when it gets up to 15 degrees!"
The problem for Bavery and so many others is an ever-deepening frost line caused by night after night of brutally cold temperatures in Madison. On cul-de-sacs and dead end streets where the water mains connect to just a handful of houses, it can spell trouble.
"There's just not enough water being turned over to keep it flowing," says utility hydrant inspector Brad Rothenburger. "The water just sits there and gets colder and colder and colder."
It's Rothenburger's job to check the water temperature at hydrants on at-risk streets like Bavery's. On this day, the news isn't good. Water comes out of the hydrant at just 30.6 degrees.
"The water's very cold. I'm very concerned," he says.
Waiting for the thaw
Frozen services are the latest headache in what's been a brutal winter. Madison Water Utility repaired 92 main breaks in January alone, largely due to the extreme cold and plunging frost line. The utility also pulled 36 cracked or broken water meters from customers' homes – the most of any month in at least the last decade. And nearly 200 customers have reported frozen laterals since January 1st.
"There have been a lot of services freezing this year because the frost is down so deep," Rothenburg says, noting that main repair crews have reported the frost line at around 6 feet deep. Unfortunately, a real thaw could be weeks away.
"Just because the air temperature is warm doesn't mean the ground's warm. When it thaws, it thaws from the top down, so it's gonna be a while."
This winter may be bad, but so far, it's not the worst. That honor may go to the winter of 1976-77, when thousands of Madisonians went days without water. Some 372 laterals froze in January and February of that year, as did large sections of water main, some bursting because of the pressure. For dozens of extreme cases, the utility was forced to set up emergency garden hose connections running from house to house to provide water. Customers used those connections for 3 months until pipes finally began to thaw in April.
For Bavery, the inconvenience of being without water turns out to be short-lived. A Madison Water Utility crew arrives Monday night, and within a couple of hours, the water is running.
"It's like Christmas all over again!" he laughs.
Bavery and other customers in high-risk areas have been notified directly by the utility to run a pencil-thin stream of water to help keep services from freezing. Usually it helps, but sometimes services freeze anyway. And it's anyone's guess as to when all the freezing might finally stop. According to Rothenburger, it could take weeks of warm temperatures to thaw the deepest frozen ground.
"I hoping it'll be thawed out by May or June," Rothenburger laughs. "Sometime in there!"