STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Water and sewer pipes bursting in frigid temperatures have made for a sleep-deprived and stressful winter for the city’s utility crews.
Just a few of the round-the-clock emergencies they have had to respond to include: vacuuming thousands of gallons of sewage spewing from a sinkhole behind the train station on New Year’s Eve, working through the night to restore water to Needham Elementary School and repairing a water line underneath Borego Drive that had hollowed out the ground underneath the street.
Since New Year’s, crews have responded to 82 emergencies such as customers’ frozen pipes, service line water breaks and clogged sewer lines as well as repair an additional 22 water and sewer main line breaks.
While a typical occurrence in winter, the number of burst pipes are unusually high this season.
“We got a call from Cortez wondering if we’re having water breaks,” said Steve Salka, Durango’s utilities director. “Everyone in the area is having the same problem.”
But Salka also said Durango’s aging infrastructure is to blame.
“Pipes put in back in the ’40s and ’50s are only 2 feet deep, which is not low enough for the kind of weather we’re dealing with,” Salka said.
These shallow pipes are vulnerable to the area’s temperature swings, which go from very frigid at night to moderate temperatures mid-day.
Melting snow and ice seeps underground during the day. The moisture then freezes at night. The effect is that the “frost layer gets lower and lower. “
Disasters always seem happen at the most inconvenient time.
On Dec. 31, utility crews were finishing their regular eight-hour shift when the city got a call about a sinkhole behind the train station for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
“It was not something you let wait until tomorrow,” Salka said. “We had to dig it up.”
The pipe was spewing so much sewage – 6,000 gallons every 30 minutes – that the city needed three vacuum trucks, contracting a third truck from Ball Septic, to haul the sewage to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
The pipe was so frail that it was disintegrating as crews tried to repair the damage.
“We replaced 20 feet of sewer line that had caved in,” Salka said.
As a more long-term remedy, Salka has engineers designing another sewer line.
“The sewer line (currently) runs right under the tracks. The worst thing we could do is dig up a track to replace a pipe we know is so old,” he said.
When the 11 workers finished their work about 5:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, they had an hour of sleep before they found out they had another place to go.
“It’s really hard as a director to look at these guys in the face when you have worked 20 hours-plus straight,” Salka said.
The next stop was a water leak at a house that was spilling into a street.
College students who went home on vacation had turned their heat off at a house on West Third Avenue. A water pipe for the ice maker behind the refrigerator broke.
“It must have been leaking for two weeks,” Salka said. “It filled the entire basement with water. Water came out the window. A neighbor finally called us.”
City workers could not find the curb stop to shut off the water. By city ordinance, the curb stop or outside water valve is supposed to be accessible so the city can turn off the water in an emergency.
City workers tried to find it with metal detectors, but eventually the solution was for a private plumber to dive into the flooded basement to turn off the water from inside.
“He had to be so damn cold,” Salka said.
City workers finished their day at 2:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day.
The city has had to deal with other disasters, too.
On Jan. 24, crews worked through the night to repair a water main break in the 2500 block between Hidden Valley Circle and Clovis. Water was seeping into a front yard.
More frighteningly, water pressure from the run-off created an “underground cave” about 8 feet below the surface.
“Thank God, the frost layer was so thick,” Salka said. “Cars did not break through and fall into this huge hole. This hole was 8 feet deep.”
On Jan. 29, a water pipe break near Needham Elementary School resulted in the loss of water for half of the building, including the cafeteria, school officials said.
“The cafeteria used paper trays, and no service was disrupted in getting food to kids,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R.
City crews once again worked through the night.
Salka estimated that the city lost a million gallons of water from midnight until 6:15 p.m.
While winter has about a month to go, Salka said he has one wish for his workers.
“I beg we don’t get any more water breaks so we can get some sleep.”