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Canada

Sick of winter? Your water mains had it worse

Video: As cold temperatures continue across the country, frost has gone deep into the ground, shifting surfaces and putting extra force on already strained Canadian infrastructure. Lauren McNabb reports.

The long, frigid winter has taken a toll on Canadians.

But some of the most serious damage the cold weather has done is out of sight and underground.

The country’s water infrastructure is crumbling. The lengthy winter has not helped.

With the extended cold temperatures, frost has gone deep into the ground, which shifts the ground and puts extra force on already strained infrastructure.

“Deep frost moves infrastructure around and exacerbates the infrastructure’s weaknesses,” said Bob Sandford, a Canmore-based water expert and Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of United Nations “Water for Life” Decade.

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READ MORE: Toronto’s water mains having worst winter in 20 years

A lack of snow cover has actually made things worse: Snow usually insulates the ground, delaying the growth of frost.

Most of the Canadian cities experiencing water main problems have dedicated crews repairing the breaks and leaks. Cities have also started opening their community and recreation centres to the public for people who are without water and are in need of a shower.

Prairie provinces have experienced the harshest temperatures and they have the broken water mains to prove it.

Winnipeg

The city has seen a significant increase in water main breaks in both January and February this year.

January saw 80 water main breaks in Winnipeg, which is significantly more than last year (60) and their historical average (49). February wasn’t as bad but the 68 water main breaks the city had as of February 24 is still more than last year (63) and their historical average (57).

Both month’s numbers are far greater than their respective five-year rolling averages as well.

Saskatoon

The fifth-coldest winter in the past century has resulted in 114 water main breaks already in 2014, for a city about a third of the size of Winnipeg.

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Engineers in the city have attributed the high amount of breaks to the bone-chilling temperatures and the shifts in the ground as a result, said Trent Schmidt, the city’s Acting Director of Public Works.

“We’ve brought in more private contractors to address the unusually higher than normal volume right now,” Schmidt added.

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Regina

“This winter came early and hard with cold temperatures and very little snow cover,” Desirae Bernreuther, spokesperson for the city of Regina, said in a statement to Global News. “The cold temperatures have driven the frost down to about six feet in some areas.”

Through the first two months of the year, Regina has had a whopping 187 water main breaks. January’s 58 breaks were on par for their averages in that month. But February was a different story: 129 breaks are almost two and a half times their monthly average of 52.

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Calgary

Calgary has only had about 50 breaks in 2014 thus far, which is on par with the city’s average (last year they had 46 at this point).

“We have some advantages,” said Andy Hughes, Leader of Asset Management for Water Services in Calgary. “First of all, we are a younger city. We have newer pipes than some older municipalities.”

Hughes said Calgary’s water system has grown by 30 percent in the last 20 years, so their pipes were built much more recently than those of cities like Toronto.

But he attributes much of the good performance from Calgary’s pipes to a revamp of the system in the early 1980s, when the city saw a spike in water main issues.

Thirty years ago, Calgary was experiencing about 1,800 water main breaks a year. The city then decided to put in place several asset management programs to address the issue.

In 2013, Calgary had fewer than 250 water main breaks all year – a decrease of 85 per cent over the last 30 years.

The play for better pipes

In Sandford’s opinion, these numbers show Canada’s dated infrastructure isn’t capable of handling its hugely varying, often extreme weather conditions.

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Sandford believes ignorance about the state of infrastructure – or its urgency – is an issue in many cities.

“The municipalities have not been good at communicating to the public how important the infrastructure is, how important maintaining it is and how lucky they are to have it,” he said. “The last thing people are going to want to put money into is something they don’t know about and something they can’t see.”

He believes that, along with spreading awareness among their citizens, cities must understand what areas of their infrastructure are the most vulnerable and prioritize accordingly.

Just how serious is the problem? The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has estimated that the country’s water infrastructure deficit is at approximately $88 billion.

“A lot of this water infrastructure is in need of repair, and it is at or beyond its expected lifetime,” Sandford said. The aging infrastructure has become a liability and will undoubtedly lead to increased numbers of water main breaks.

“This is just the beginning of the headaches we’re going to experience.”

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