Duluth water main breaks and future projects

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Duluth averages around 100 water main breaks per year. This issue can lead to roads being closed, water being shut off, and even property damage.

According to City of Duluth Interim Utility Operator and Manager Chris Kleist, old pipes are to blame for the frequency of water main breaks.

“We have about 432 miles of water main in the city of Duluth. About 65% of that is cast iron pipe and most of it was put in back in the early 1900s. So it’s pushing 100 years old,” explained Kleist. “So it’s a very old pipe. It’s strong but brittle. As the corrosion gets deeper and deeper, the mains burst more easily.”

Most water main breaks occur in the winter.

“When the frost gets down four or five six feet, that goes near the water mains and that freeze and thaw of the ground affects the water mains and puts pressure on them,” said Kleist.

As we have seen this past week, water main breaks can happen at any time and seemingly anywhere.

“The water main breaks we’re seeing are typically caused by corrosion of the pipes and pressure fluctuations in the pipes, either from hydrant usage or other water main breaks that cause another pressure spike,” said Kleist. The biggest issue that we face is that the soils are corrosive and of course the cast iron water main is metallic, so it corrodes anyway.”

When this happens, it takes around 6-8 hours for the city to repair the leak.

“The first thing we do is is shut down the water main, make the area safe for the public and for our staff,” said Kleist. “We make a one call to identify all the utilities in the area and then close the road and start the repair, which it requires an excavation and fixing the pipe, whatever that repair happens to be.”

The utility’s five-year capital improvement plan addresses water main replacement on a year-by-year basis. This includes the reconstruction of 1st Avenue East between E Superior St and E 3rd St as well as the Raleigh Street Reconstruction scheduled for 2024.

“Our role as operations to fix and repair the system, we have to keep customers in service,” said Kleist. “We track water main breaks every year identifying the worst areas. We replace those sections of water main with full replacements to minimize the impact in the future.”

Kleist added that the best way to quickly know if there is a water main break near you is to sign up for the Northland Alert system. You can sign up for Northland Alert at this link.

Current utility outage locations can be found at this link.