Policy change has residents looking for help with frozen water lines

Those with frozen lines used to get help from the city

By Terry LehrkeNews Editor

Over the years, Little Falls city staff has helped residents with a myriad of problems — one of which was thawing frozen water lines/pipes.

However, a policy approved by the City Council in 2013 prohibiting the use of city equipment on private property, has made it difficult for residents to get help thawing frozen water pipes and lines this year.

Over the weekend, residents were told to call plumbers.

Steve White, owner of White Home Center in Little Falls said he’s been busy and hasn’t had time to deal with these issues, but that the city used to do this type of work.

“Not always,” he said, “But a large portion of the time, the problem was on public property between the curb stop and water main. And, because the roads are cleaned up in winter months, that’s where a majority of them are frozen.”

Areas in boulevards and yard areas normally don’t freeze because of snow cover, said White. “But anything is possible,” he said.

In the process of trying to thaw water lines, a plumber needs to get to the curb stop to turn the water off. “The city has provided that service because it is on public property,” said White.

Little Falls Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said she received numerous calls starting Sunday, when residents were told the city wasn’t able to use its equipment on their property to thaw the lines.

VanRisseghem said this is the first time in her eight years as mayor she’s heard of this problem.

She said the concept for the policy started with the city sweepers being used at Oakland Cemetery. “The Council made a blanket decision,” she said.

“I had no idea how much the city did for the community — we need to look at that policy again and get a good gauge of what staff did for the community and make a recommendation based off of that.

“I feel so bad for these people,” said VanRisseghem. “One resident with problems was a woman with kids, hauling snow inside to flush her toilet and an 88-year-old who had no water.

“There are exceptions to the rule; there’s got to be,” she said. “If residents in the city have a need, we have to help them and if our hands are tied, we’re not doing our jobs.”

Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder, said he too, received numerous calls.

“The city usually thawed that (frozen pipes) out for people and because of the policy, they can’t use city equipment anymore,” he said.

It’s the pipes from the house to the curb that are the problem, said Crowder.

“I’d like to see that policy rescinded,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good policy.”

Art Leikvoll, whose rental properties were affected by frozen pipes, said the city had the water running Wednesday morning.

From Sunday morning until the water was running again, Leikvoll said they helped their tenants carry water for use in the home.

At first, Leikvoll said he was told to get a plumber. “The plumber said it was frozen beyond the house and I had to call the city,” said Leikvoll.

“The Good Lord looked out for us,” he said. “We got hold of the mayor of Little Falls and (Public Works Director) Jerry Lochner and told them, ‘We’re paying for the water, but we can’t get water.’ I’m not a religious person, but I was praying on this one.”

Leikvoll said people are handicapped without water or sewer. “I was just lost for what to do and turned to the mayor,” he said.

“You feel like you get pushed to the wall and you got to fight back,” he said. “I just let our mayor and Lochner put their heads together.”

Tuesday, Lochner said there were eight or nine freeze-ups that the city knew of and half had been thawed by Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday morning, the crews planned to start again, but were out plowing snow.

He said city staff put together a little pump and hose system that the plumbers or homeowners could rent from the city.

“Over the last few years, we haven’t had a lot of water freeze-ups,” said Lochner. Some happen in January, most in February and into March, he said.

Lochner said residents should leave their water run in a small stream if they think it’s going to freeze. “Or it’s going to be a painful process after that,” he said.

One process that was once used to thaw pipes involved a welder. “Plumbers in town don’t want to use a welder and we shouldn’t use a welder either, there’s so much plastic piping out there. A welder will melt those pipes,” Lochner said.

This type of problem hasn’t happened for a while. In 1994, Lochner said there were a number of freeze-ups. In the 1980s, he said there were 40 or so. “But back in the 1970s, there were 100 – 125 freeze-ups,” he said.

As streets have been updated and repaired, all new water main was put in deeper, said Lochner. “Some of the areas, when we fixed the roads, we lowered water mains or insulated them,” he said.

Each situation is different. “It depends on where it freezes or breaks. Some people have their water lines running down their driveways, with no snow cover,” said Lochner. “This is what happens in Minnesota, the frost goes down into the ground.”

He said there are always a few freeze-ups as it warms outside. “Frost gets pushed down. We get a few freeze-ups on years where there are multiple freezes in the spring of the year,” said Lochner. “It takes a long time for soil to thaw.”

VanRisseghem said the policy about use of city equipment will be put on Tuesday’s agenda. The work session begins at 5:30 p.m. It is at the beginning of the work session that residents are able to address the Council for five minutes.

Residents can call city staff and get their name on a list if their pipes freeze.