In this, the coldest winter in 35 years in Winnipeg, the city is now facing a growing problem of households, public buildings and businesses with frozen water pipes.
This problem is city-wide, including some addresses in St. Vital. The problem has tended to be most severe in areas that were built in 1950 and before, though there are exceptions to this standard. In St. Vital I have had frozen pipe calls from streets like Glenview, Worthington and St. Vital Road, but no calls from the newer areas south of Bishop Grandin. Some residents are angry, and I don’t blame them, but the City is taking action to tackle the problem.
The City is working to thaw out frozen pipes and has notified thousands of at-risk homes that they should keep a small amount of water running. Outside hoses are being installed to neighbouring properties to create a temporary, low-pressure water supply to homes with frozen pipes. The City is also delivering water to affected homes, and has opened city swimming pools to affected residents who need to shower.
How did this happen in a winter city? The short answer is "frost." Given the cold temperatures, frost has penetrated into the ground more deeply than in normal years, in fact more deeply than most city staff have ever seen. The pipes installed in the older areas were apparently not buried as deep as pipes have been laid in more recently constructed areas. Some have faulted the City for not planning for this event, but it is a problem affecting many other cities, like Chicago, in this year of the polar vortex.
The City experienced 3,000 cases of frozen pipes in 1979, the last year we had a winter this cold (I clearly remember how cold it was in winter 1979 as it was the first winter where I ran outdoors — Dakota had a very committed running group). Going forward, the City will have to consider how many thawing machines, temporary hoses, and so on to have in stock, knowing that it might be another generation before these resources are actually used. Water is an essential service for St. Vital residents (and all Winnipegers) and once this crisis is passed we will need to review what lessons have been learned and how we can try to avoid a similar problem in the future.