|There is an emergency in northern Wisconsin, but it has nothing to do with Thursday night’s snowstorm.|
With winter’s unrelenting chill plunging frost deeper and deeper into the ground, communities across the region are battling frozen water lines and urging residents to keep their taps flowing.
“The governor declared a state of emergency Wednesday for the snow coming in,” Antigo’s Director of Administrative Services Mark Desotell said. “That’s just a 48 hour storm.
“This,” he said, pointing at a city map color-coded to show where lines are freezing and water is being kept running, “is the real emergency. This is hitting communities hard.”
Currently the city of Antigo has about 1,100 residences—a third of the community—on mandatory run notices, meaning families have been told to keep a pencil-sized stream of water running at all times in order to keep water moving through the lines and prevent freeze-ups.
Those orders were given after freeze-ups occurred, or in some cases to prevent them from happening, Street Commissioner Bob Piskula said, and that has caused the number of reports from problems to dwindle to six or seven calls a day.
“Tonight through Monday will really tell us how we’re doing,” Piskula said.
Thirty freeze-ups were reported last weekend, a substantial amount but down from the 60 called in on the worst weekend of the crisis.
“Right now, we’re stopping freeze-ups before they occur,” Desotell said.
Freeze-up reports also are more common on Fridays and Mondays, suggesting people are leaving or returning home after a few days absence. Piskula said that residents who are going to be gone for several days should have neighbors or friends monitor their homes for problems, so they can be corrected in a timely manner.
The city is taking other steps as well. Starting Wednesday, all water from city wells will be fed directly into the system, bypassing softening at the water plant.
Bill Obenauf, water and wastewater manager, said that will accomplish several goals. By having the pumps available to run 24 hours, rather than just two shifts a day, the pressure on both equipment and the city aquifers should be eased. The change will also ensure a steady water pressure in case of a fire.
Perhaps most importantly, water being pulled from the ground is slightly warmer than that stored in the towers by two or three degrees, and that could eliminate some freeze-up concerns.
Routine plant maintenance will be done during the shutdown, rather than on the usual April date, Obenauf added.
The city began noticing freeze-ups in early January, primarily concentrated south of Fifth Avenue, a traditional problem area, Desotell said.
Concerns had spiderwebbed across the community by early February, with reports of a dozen or more freeze-ups a day sending crews scurrying across the community and the first let-it-run orders to be issued.
By Feb. 12, the city was asking residents in selected areas to run water on the west side, with the Superior Street corridor between Edison and Arctic streets joining the list earlier this week.
“Right now, we anticipate that is all the homes that we will ask to leave their water running,” Desotell said.
Residents who have been told to leave their taps open are having their water and wastewater bills adjusted to reflect normal usage.
The let-it-run orders have increased the city’s overall water usage by about 750,000 gallons a day.
The freeze-ups have also taxed crews to the near-breaking point, eliminating time that otherwise would have been spent clearing snow and cutting backs.
“The crews are doing a fantastic job,” Desotell said.
“For the amount of workload, a lot is getting done,” Obenauf added.
Similar orders are in place in nearby communities, including Elcho and White Lake, where all residents—not just selected homes—are being told to keep their water running.
With spring weeks—or months—away, the problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Even when temperatures rise, the frost will continue to be driven deeper into the ground, enveloping pipes and sewer lines.
“This is going to go into April for sure,” Piskula said.
Late Thursday afternoon, during a driving sleet storm, Antigo's public works employees were repairing a broken water main just east of the bridge on Second Avenue. The North's water situation is being called an emergency.