Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City's water main policy good -- for city

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Gerald McCasky says he got the worst of the flooding on Notre Dame Avenue Sunday when a water main broke outside his neighbour's yard. His house is low, so the water pooled around it and into the backyard. Ice everywhere.

But he has no basement. No damage, that he knows of.

Not so with his neighbour, who saw water pour through the windows of her basement.

Chris Kipling told reporters that the water came in so fast, the laundry got soaked with muddy water that filled the basement. A thick sludge coats the basement floor. No insurance coverage. McCasky says his neighbours are out of the house.

The city says too bad, no compensation.

McCasky and Kipling live in an older area of town where the cast iron water mains are susceptible to corrosion. The water main in the 1300 block of Notre Dame was installed in 1907 and has broken before, most recently in 2002.

Most Winnipeggers know that a big piece of this town has old, old pipes. In fact, more than 600 kilometres of pipes, 25 per cent of the water main system, are cast or ductile iron. And 335 kilometres of that is a particularly problematic -- a thinner cast or ductile iron piping installed from the mid-1930s on. The thinner pipe was strong, but eventually was found to be more susceptible to corrosion. In Winnipeg's clay-based soil, which retains water, that's a problem.

So while the pipes on Notre Dame are old, they're not a priority. The thinner, "newer" pipes get priority and those at the top are mains that have had four breaks in five years.

Not only did this city block have little chance of getting pipes replaced before a cataclysmic failure, but the pipe type helps to underpin the city's defence against liability.

And here's how that works: the city's Charter says that it is not liable for damages due to water main breaks unless negligence is proven. The city's approach to replacing water mains at risk uses a formula targeting mains that have a history of breaks -- four breaks in five years gets the main to the top of the list.

Last year, some 42 water mains were replaced as part of the city's budget, either due to frequent leaks or because a street was being rebuilt. This year, 36 projects are slated, at a cost of $13.5 million and 13 of those projects are mains that have had four breaks or more within five years. (Eight of those mains were on 2010's list for replacement but were scratched when quotes from the construction industry came in higher than expected.)

The city's approach is logical and economical. For the city, that is.

The residents of the homes on Notre Dame that were inundated in the middle of a cold snap are bearing the cost for no fault of their own. That's an inordinate expense for a few homeowners, but the city says there's no compensation.

Of course the city's interest is to stick to strict enforcement of the liability clause, otherwise it'd be compensating for toes broken on a crumbling sidewalk.

But I'd like to see this one tested in court, to judge the city's "reasonable" approach to water main renewal, especially for the pipes at elevated risk.

Aside from negligence, the city's defence rests upon showing its schedule for renewal of water mains is reasonable. The water main renewal schedule is based on a cost/benefit analysis of maintaining assets. As the city engineer told me, it is like the decisions a driver makes when weighing the cost of repairing a car against buying a new one -- replace a belt of a seven year old car, worth the cost; replace the transmission? It's what all municipalities do, I was told.

But when my rust bucket craps out on me, I alone bear the cost. Not so with water main breaks, particularly in winter when pipes tend to burst.

When the pipe burst on Notre Dame, McCasky and Kipling were defenseless, so to speak, because, with sewer drains blocked, the water had no where to go but over land.

Let's do a little math here. At 13 (150 metres each) replacements a year, it'll take close to 170 years to replace all thin cast/ductile iron mains. In total, the city replaces a total of 10 kilometres of water mains a year, which means it'll be decades before all the old stuff is gone.

The slow, methodical approach -- keeping the jalopy on the road until bandages don't hold -- allows city councillors the luxury of spending tax dollars on other items (stadium, bike lanes) on the infrastructure wish list.

I'm not quarreling with that. But a narrow legal interpretation of liability will put disproportionate cost on the shoulders of a few homeowners who live with the elevated risk of water main breaks, something that home insurance policies often will not cover.

The city, if out of nothing more than compassion, should have a special fund to recognize that.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Winnipeg's Water Mains

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2011 A10

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