Knee-deep in freezing water, Glenwood Springs city workers brave winter conditions to keep tap flowing
City’s water operations team repairs winter breaks
Replacing and repairing Glenwood Springs’ water infrastructure is an endless task made cold, wet and miserable by winter temperatures, Public Works Director Matt Langhorst said.
In December and January, city staff repaired four major breaks, some of which required workers to dig themselves into a puddle on the coldest days of the winter.
“If it’s cold enough, the water comes up liquid, but it very quickly becomes a thin sheen of ice all around you as you’re trying to complete the repairs,” Langhorst said, “which can make for a very long and difficult day.”
Mike Hoffman, the city’s water and wastewater field operations superintendent, said breaks often occur several feet beneath a roadway along the city’s infrastructure corridors.
“There can be up to 5 feet of frozen ground beneath the asphalt,” Hoffman explained. “It’s like trying to dig through concrete.”
Most of the recent breaks were the result of multiple factors, including corrosive soil, aging infrastructure and fluctuating temperatures.
“In the winter time, we’re in this freeze-and-thaw cycle,” Hoffman said. “And the ground tends to shift often, which puts stress on the fittings, causing them to occasionally fail.”
If a waterline breaks in a populated and well-trafficked area, Hoffman’s team typically gets calls about it within hours, but with thousands of miles of pipe underground, not all breaks are immediately obvious.
“The hardest ones to find are in the lines that go under the river,” Hoffman said. “But sometimes, we’ll see something at the water plant that tips us off to a leak, and we’ll spend a day or two searching for indications of a break in areas that don’t get a lot of traffic, such as along the railroad tracks.”
City staff knew they had a waterline problem in late December when the water plant recorded a significant increase in demand on an output line overnight.
“I had a feeling it might be a break in one of the lines running under the Colorado River near the Midland Avenue bridge,” Hoffman said.
So how do you go about finding a leak in and around a body of water? Hoffman said the trick is radio-frequency detection.
“We bring in a contractor who specializes in finding leaks,” he explained.
The contractor uses equipment to bounce soundwaves back and forth along a waterline, pinpointing disturbances that could be breaks in the pipeline.
The contractor proved Hoffman right about the general leak location — identifying usual radio-frequency signatures along a waterline near Whitewater Park’s boat ramps, about 20 feet above the river line.
“The embankment was entirely saturated,” Hoffman said, adding the 12-inch ductile iron pipe was buried about 15 feet below ground. “The entire time we dug down, we had water coming in from all directions.”
Corrosive soil, minerals in the river and a lack of preventative measures taken during the installation all contributed to the break in the pipe wall.
“I was a bit surprised, because the pipe was relatively new, being installed around 1985,” Hoffman said, explaining most water infrastructure is designed to last about 50 or more years.
Most waterline fixes are conducted by the city at the cost of time and materials alone, but for the Whitewater Park break, Hoffman said his team brought in Gould Construction to help with the excavation.
In all, locating the leak and excavating the pipe took about three weeks and could cost the city about $35,000, he said.
City Hall, West Glenwood
One of the coldest days on record in late 2021, Dec. 21 was a double whammy for Hoffman’s crews, who raced to fix two water main breaks on opposite sides of Glenwood Springs.
The first was the result of a failed valve bonnet next to City Hall.
“The bolts around the bonnet were corroded almost entirely away,” Langhorst said. “That 6-inch line supplied City Hall’s potable water and fire sprinkler systems, so we had to close up during repairs.”
Similar to the corroded pipe wall in Whitewater Park, the bonnet bolts corroded as a result of acidic soil conditions and the same minerals in the water table that people travel the world to enjoy at the local hot springs.
When the bonnet was installed decades ago, workers used uncoated steel bolts to secure the fitting, which led to their quick erosion. Nowadays, the city uses fluorocarbon-coated bolts to prevent corrosion, Langhorst said.
Across town in West Glenwood, Hoffman’s crews repaired a three-quarter-inch service saddle near Ponderosa Drive about 6 feet below the roadway, which burst as a result of the drastic change in temperature.
7th and Minter
Another break first identified at the city’s water plant, Hoffman said he received a call early one December morning about one of the city’s water tanks draining rapidly.
“If this was in a neighborhood, we would’ve had calls coming in left and right,” Hoffman said. “But we didn’t get any of those, so we knew the break was off the beaten path.”
While driving around looking for signs of excess water, one of Hoffman’s team noticed a new river had seemingly sprung up near the railroad tracks at Seventh Street and Minter Avenue.
“A waterline that runs off Minter and into the railroad right of way sprang a leak and started feeding the Colorado adjacent to the mainline track,” Hoffman said.
Working with Union Pacific, the city determined there was no structural damage to the track or its base before starting repairs.
A previous repair on a 10-inch, thin-wall steel waterline failed, causing the damage, and city workers were able to fix the repair without help from an outside contractor.
“When a waterline breaks, we’re doing everything we can, sometimes in the worst conditions you can imagine,” Langhorst said. “So if the residents can be a little patient with us when these things happen, it will be a big help.”
City crews continue to patch and replace broken infrastructure throughout the city as needed, but the real work is being done in the planning phases, Langhorst said.
As new projects pop up, the city is investing in better pipe technology to suit the area’s poor soil conditions and erratic winter temperatures. Furthermore, Langhorst said city staff are working proactively to move infrastructure to more accessible locations, such as replacing waterlines running beneath the rivers with new pipe run along the underside of the city’s bridges.
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at email@example.com.
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