Bloomington’s dozen water main breaks in a week make for record-setting start to 2021

A press release from city of Bloomington utilities (CBU) on Thursday reported four water main breaks that day, with various boil water notices.

The news release also noted that Thursday’s breaks brought the total since last Saturday to 12 breaks. On Saturday afternoon (Feb. 20), a break at the intersection of Walnut and Fourth streets in downtown Bloomington closed roads to traffic for several hours.

When breaks from press releases are added to those not already included in the city’s B Clear Data portal  it pushes February’s water main break total to 18. That’s the highest monthly total since 2013, which is when the dataset starts.

Added to the 15 breaks in January, the 33 breaks in the first two months of 2021 are 9 more than the next-highest two-month total since 2013. In August and September of 2015, a total of 24 breaks were recorded. The eight years of data don’t seem to show a clear long-term upward trend.

On Thursday, a CBU crew was repairing a main break on Walnut Street just across from the courthouse, closing all but one lane to traffic.

On Monday, crews repaired a break near the downtown Bloomington location of the Monroe County Public Library. That meant a glitch for that day’s re-opening of the library building to the public. It had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The library shut down the building for the rest of the day after the main break.

According to CBU spokesperson Holly McLauchlin, other than rapidly warming temperatures as a potential cause, no other specific reason has been identified for the recent spike in water main breaks.

Over 75 percent of the city’s water mains are more than 50 years old. Last summer the city replaced a 123-year-old main north of the courthouse square.

A more aggressive water main replacement program is a part of the case that CBU will be making to the city council in the next few weeks for a water rate increase.

The idea is to go from replacing about 2 miles worth of pipe per year to 3 miles a year—to reach an eventual goal of having a program that replaces all the city’s water mains every 100 years. At the current pace, it would take 200 years to replace all the city’s water mains, which is longer than the expected life of a pipe, according to CBU director Vic Kelson.

The city’s water system has about 420 miles worth of pipe.

The accelerated water main replacement program would mean increasing expenditures for water main replacement from the current level of $1.7 million a year to $3 million a year by 2025.

A planned February timeline for the city council’s approval of higher water rates has slipped a bit. Here’s a current potential legislative time frame:

  • March 3: first reading
  • March 10: likely committee meeting
  • March 17: possible vote at  the regular meeting (second reading)
  • March 24: possible second committee meeting, if no vote is taken on March 17
  • April 7: possible vote at the regular meeting, if no vote is taken on March 17