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Baltimore's water problems get worse as more pipes break amid warm spell

The Baltimore Sun — Ian Duncan The Baltimore Sun

Jan. 12--Mild weather on the heels of a long-lasting deep freeze has caused the ground under Baltimore to shift, breaking more water mains and leaving more customers' taps dry, city officials said.

Rudy Chow, the city's director of public works, said Friday that the effect on water pipes of the freezing and thawing is like someone squeezing a plastic bottle. Eventually something breaks.

"The reality is we're bracing for more main breaks," Chow said.

The department, which provides water to some 400,000 customers in Baltimore and Baltimore County, now has a backlog of 132 broken mains, 1,243 customers complaining of no water and 2,017 reports of water leaks.

Chow said Friday during a news conference at his department's emergency command center that he was aiming to clear as much of the outstanding work before temperatures plunge again.

"We're going to try get all these things done, as many as we can, in the next few days just to try to get ahead of the next wave," Chow said.

But he offered no timeline for when the problems would be resolved. He said in general those that were the first to be reported would be the first to be fixed.

"We're trying real hard, and we're asking for our citizens' and customers' patience," Chow said.

Temperatures in Baltimore at the end of the week topped 60 degrees, following an eight-day stretch of below-freezing weather. Ray Martin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said that while the long freeze was unusual, the warmer highs are not out of the ordinary for this time of year.

The cold is set to return this weekend, Martin said, with temperatures forecast to fall below freezing on Saturday and stay there until Tuesday.

Holding up a water meter at the news conference, Chow showed how it is designed to burst on the bottom when it freezes. The idea is to protect the pipes around the meter, which are much harder to replace. The department has responded to 2,300 calls for frozen meters, Chow said, and was working on almost another 200 more as he spoke.

While the meters wirelessly transmit hourly data about water usage, they can't tell the department when they're frozen, so officials rely on customers to report problems.

To help, the water department previously has released an online map of water main breaks, allowing officials and the public to track repairs and see where problems were unresolved. Another map generated by Chow's team displayed at Friday's news conference showed where customers were without water with red dots scattered across the region.

Much of Baltimore's water infrastructure is old and the city is under federal orders to modernize it. Regulations implemented since the current pipes were installed require them to be buried deeper, providing more protection against low temperatures.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who spoke Friday alongside Chow, said resolving the long-term problems was a priority: "This is an issue that we know we really have to deal with."

For now, the public works department has deployed 30 crews, of five to six workers each, around the clock to try to make repairs.

At 1 p.m. Friday, a crew began to get to work repairing a main in an alley behind the Baltimore Lab School in the Old Goucher neighborhood.

George Sherrod sat at the controls of a hydraulic excavator, ready to puncture the asphalt and brick paving below with a large spear.

"Oh baby, baby, here we go," Sherrod shouted as he prepared to make the first hole.

The crew eventually would clear out a hole and see if they could fix the main without turning the water off. If they could, it would be about a two-hour job.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said not all the crews he's encountered have heavy machinery to help them and that workers have complained about not having the right tools for the job. In some cases, Dorsey said, workers are digging down to broken mains using handheld jackhammers rather than backhoes and have saws that are too small to make clean cuts through the pipes. As a result, Dorsey said, work that should have taken a few minutes has dragged on for hours.

"If I thought that their workers were being provided the right tools or enough of the right tools then I'd think that we were doing everything that we could, but we don't even have the right equipment to take things on," he said.

Jeffrey Raymond, a public works spokesman, said workers can only use the tools they have available.

"We'd love to have more and better, but we're doing what we can with what we have," he said.

Baltimore County sent its own crews out to handle repairs after officials noticed that a list of broken mains supplied by the city remained stubbornly long. Lauren Watley, a spokesman for the county government, said four contractor crews were working on fixing water main breaks while about a dozen county teams were helping individual customers with no service.

"The list has gone down significantly," she said.

Elementary school nurse Cari Seidler still was waiting for her water to be turned back on Friday. She had gone five days without any after noticing water gushing down her Pikesville-area street on Sunday morning before freezing over.

"Half of the road was completely iced-over up the driveways," she said.

The next morning, Seidler said she discovered she had no water. So she's been using the shower at the gym, staying with her boyfriend and drinking bottled water.

On Friday, a repair crew showed up and Seidler was hoping that she'd have water again before the weekend arrived. If not, she said, she'd check into a hotel.

"What do people do who can't afford to do that?" Seidler said.

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