Western Springs releases report explaining record water main breaks in 2012

WESTERN SPRINGS – After experiencing a record-high 66 water main breaks in 2012, which prompted a flood of phone calls from concerned residents noticing cloudy water coming out of their faucets, Western Springs’ Municipal Services Department released a report April 12 to explain the circumstances that caused the increase.

The 2012 Water Main Break Report cites last summer’s drought and heat wave as the main reasons for the 66 breaks, the most since the village starting collecting the data in 1972, while downplaying the effect of construction on the village’s new reverse osmosis water plant.

“We got quite a bit of phone calls,” said Matt Supert, director of the Municipal Services Department. “Unfortunately for us, we had a giant project which was highlighted [as a cause for the breaks]. Really, that wasn’t necessarily the case. There were some instances when the project did affect the mains, but it was mainly the drought.”

Supert said none of the breaks were directly caused by construction on the new plant, which began in November 2011. About 10 of the breaks were indirectly related to the project because of an affected transmission main.

The village saw 19 breaks in July, three more than occurred in all of 2011. The report says that through July, the mean temperature was 86.4 degrees, 13.2 degrees higher than average. Higher temperatures create a higher demand for water, which places pressure on the water system, Supert said, who added the village had a record output of water last year.

“I had some pretty exhausted public works crews,” Supert said.

The heat also causes cracks in the dried ground, which pulls away from water mains and creates air pockets that allow the mains to settle, leading to breaks, Supert said.

Another contributor was the small amount of rain the village received in 2012, just 30.33 inches, the lowest total since 2005 and the second-lowest since 1984.

Supert said his department received several calls a day in the summer months from residents reporting cloudy water, a result of buildup of calcium carbonate from a water-softening process the village uses. Residents often noticed the sediment in their toilets or bath, Supert said, or in the form of a white film on dishes after going through the heating cycle in a dishwasher.

The sediment, which is most likely a mixture of iron, sand, magnesium and calcium, is not health-threatening, Supert said. In addition to the water main breaks, the increased buildup was a result of the village suspending its annual hydrant flushing program, which removes loose sediment from water mains, because of the drought and the ongoing construction of the reverse osmosis plant. The village will conduct hydrant flushing again this year, probably in September, Supert said.

During last summer’s drought, the village was forced to use a water well, Well No. 1, that is normally reserved for emergencies. Water from Well No. 1 is extremely hard, about 940 milligrams per liter, the report said. Use of the well created increased sediment that was stirred up when water mains broke.

The report also cited the age of the village’s water main pipes, 77 percent of which are more than 40 years old and have a thick layer of calcium lining their inside surface.

Construction on the new reverse osmosis plant is scheduled to finish in May, Supert said. Because of the project, the village had to suspend its water-softening process from November 2011-December 2012, and some residents noticed that their water felt harder, Supert said. But the village resumed softening its water in mid-February, and the water has returned to the village’s target softness level of 120-140 milligrams per liter, Supert said.

The village has had about three or four water main breaks in both Februrary and March of this year, Supert said, which is about average.