2019 on pace to be a big year for Bloomington water main breaks

Not counting any of the half dozen water main breaks in July, the city of Bloomington has tallied 44 breaks so far in 2019.

Is that a big number? Yes, based on the number of breaks over the last six years that are logged in the dataset posted on the city’s B-Clear data portal.

Cropped busted pipe IMG_9574
The broken water main from the intersection of Kirkwood Avenue and Washington Street  lay on the pavement Monday morning. July 22, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

The 44 breaks in 2019 so far, through the first six months of the year, are at least 12 more breaks (37 percent more) than in the first half of any of the last six years. So this year looks like it could be on course to match or exceed the 88 breaks tallied in 2016, which is the biggest number for a whole year since 2013.

Causes for breaks recorded in the dataset include ground movement, defect in the pipe, improper bedding, a contractor, temperature changes, and water hammer, among others. Water hammer is a sudden increase in pressure caused when the momentum of all the water flowing in a pipe is brought to a sudden stop.

A dramatic water main break last Sunday, at the busy four-way stop at Kirkwood Avenue and Washington Street downtown, put Bloomington’s drinking water pipes in the news.

Earlier this year, in April, it was quieter news that prompted The Beacon to talk to Bloomington’s utilities director, Vic Kelson, about water main breaks. The utilities department had just posted an initial dataset for breaks on the city’s B-Clear Portal. The initial file included considerable detail, much of which would be opaque to a layperson.  The technical detail reflects the fact that it’s the working dataset the department is using in its effort to analyze patterns of breaks, Kelson said.

Water Main Breaks Bloomington 2013 to June 2019 first six

Kelson said it’s important to guard against confirmation bias—just because a certain kind of break is one you’ve seen a lot recently does not necessarily mean it’s a pattern.

Getting a read on possible patterns is useful for future budgeting. The department spends around $1.7 million annually for its water main replacement program. But Kelson said it’s not clear if that’s enough, to keep ahead of the failures in the city’s 450-miles of aging water main infrastructure. Somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of the pipes are over 75 years old, Kelson said.

Even some of the younger, ductile iron pipes,  Kelson said, are not showing the kind of life-span that might be expected. Older, cast iron pipes make up the majority of breaks in the dataset—243 out of 411 breaks. But the tally for ductile iron is still significant at 140 breaks. The pipe that burst at Kirkwood and Washington was ductile iron.

Kelson said that it’s possible that the somewhat sooner-than-expected failure of ductile iron pipes is linked to a manufacturing issue that’s broader than just the pipe that’s been installed in Bloomington. The issue of aging water delivery infrastructure is at least a trillion-dollar problem nationwide, Kelson said.

Kelson, who was appointed by mayor John Hamilton in 2016, said he’s formed a water main break task force, which meets monthly, to get a better understanding of where and why breaks are happening in the city’s water distribution system. The task force draws on staff from operations, engineering and transmission-distribution.

The need to plan the next year’s budget for water main replacement is one kind of immediate pressure on the department to get a better understanding of what’s going on underground with Bloomington’s water pipes.

R Map Water Main Breaks NAxxxx
Gallons lost are estimated. The largest purple dot on the map does not technically correspond to a water main break—the bolts on a valve at the old water plant near Griffy Lake had rusted away.

Also coming up soon, in 2020, is the start of the city’s case for increasing rates, Kelson told The Beacon. Work on that will start in October this year, he said. The rate case has to be presented to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The final order in the city’s last rate case, in 2016, authorized a 20.15 percent across-the-board increase in rates. That order was was issued on March 29, 2017.

State legislation enacted earlier this year (HB 1406) also puts some pressure on local public water systems to understand where and why breaks are occurring. In order to take advantage of the state’s water infrastructure assistance fund, a public water system has to “conduct or participate in efforts to determine and eliminate the causes of non-revenue water in its water distribution system.”

“Non-revenue water” is how state lawmakers describe the geyser that flooded the intersection of Kirkwood Avenue and Washington Street last Sunday.

HB 1406 was approved unanimously in both chambers of the legislature earlier this year.  When state representative Matt Pierce (D) visited Bloomington during the legislative session as a part of an update hosted by the League of Women Voters, he said the idea was to put $20 million per budget cycle into the fund for maybe the next two or three budget cycles.