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Cold Challenges County

Employees work extended shifts repairing water, sewer, streets.

Icy roads and freezing temperatures over the last week have kept most of Washington indoors. But Ron Boyd has spent the time in the great outdoors.

Boyd, an engineering associate with the county’s Department of Public Works, is one of many employees who have been working 12-hour shifts day and night for the past few weeks. This week’s cold snap has caused dozens of water main breaks, destroying roads throughout Arlington.

Even when he’s lifting heavy equipment or sloshing through a trench to repair a water main, Boyd says the work doesn’t bother him. “The work is not the problem,” he said, “It’s the cold.”

There have been 61 burst water pipes in the county since Jan. 15, 55 of which were water mains. It’s meant a lot of work for county work crews and independent contractors hired by the county – more than they’re ready for.

“We’re not staffed to deal with the magnitude of work we’re doing right now,” said Randy Bartlett, chief of the DPW’s water, sewer and streets division.

Over a particularly busy stretch from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21, Bartlett’s crews repaired 19 broken water mains. “And it hasn’t slowed down yet,” he says.

That means county dollars have been disappearing quickly to pay for equipment, supplies and overtime. Paying employees for working throughout the night can get costly. Just how costly remains to be seen.

The DPW is so understaffed, Bartlett said, that office staff who would normally calculate the financial impact of water main breaks have instead been out on the road, driving repair trucks. There are enough employees to handle demands of summer months, but winter has left the department unprepared, he said.

One thing is certain. “It’s going to be an expensive winter,” said Bartlett.

REPAIRS TO WATER mains have made mincemeat of Arlington’s roads over the last few weeks. Typical repairs take four to six hours, Boyd said, but only if everything goes right.

Water from a broken main sometimes flows through underground channels for hundreds of feet before springing to the surface. When that happens, it can take all day just to find the source of the leak. When a pipe has a small crack, crews can patch it within a few hours, but for serious breaks, whole sections of pipe must be replaced, and that can take all night.

After the break has been isolated, crews must jackhammer through road pavement and dig a trench to access the pipe. Afterwards, they have to repair the road with asphalt. But that too has proven difficult this winter, Bartlett said, because temperatures have been too cold for workers to spread asphalt.

Several times this winter, Sutton said, students have gotten to school late because their bus drivers had to change routes at the last minute, trying to avoid roads closed by broken water mains.

AFTER MILD WINTERS, the return of cold temperatures this year shouldn’t have been a surprise, weather forecasters said.

“In a general sense, [the cold weather] is only abnormal when you put it in terms of the last few years,” said Jim Travers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore-Washington Forecast Office in Dulles. Unseasonably warm winters in recent years have made local residents forget what an average January feels like. “This year we’re actually getting a winter,” Travers said.

For temperatures occasionally to fall below 20 degrees is fairly common for a Washington winter, Travers said. This year, temperatures have been below normal. The Weather Service expects cold temperatures to continue for at least another month and the average temperature for this winter to be one to three degrees below normal.

Students in Arlington Public Schools had not had a snow day in two years, but this year Arlington schools have canceled school three times already for inclement weather, and opened late twice.

Greg Sutton, Director of School Transportation for Arlington Public Schools, traveled the bus routes at 3 a.m. each of those days to make a recommendation. Sutton and Bartlett coordinate their departments’ efforts, and routes to schools and hospitals are the first priority for road crews.

Even if county officials listen to weather forecasters, it’s impossible to prepare for the conditions Arlington has seen recently, Bartlett said. Mild snow flurries have caused long nights for DPW employees, since forecasted flurries can turn into major winter storms.

So if any snow is in the forecast, crews must be available on standby, ready to plow and apply salt to county roads. This winter, though, temperatures have dropped so low that salt is ineffective, and ice has formed even on salted roads.

THAT’S COLD ENOUGH, according to Boyd, especially when broken water mains drench repair crews, and when wind chills drop below zero, as they did last weekend.

Work crews from DPW often have no way of escaping from the elements, said Bartlett. “They can try to warm up in the trucks a little bit, but that’s about all,” he said.

Water mains usually break late at night, when temperatures plummet and cause soil to shift, putting pressure on underground utilities. Broken water mains threaten public safety because they destroy or flood roads, so DPW crews have to respond immediately.

That means Boyd, who usually analyzes problems and then serves as a supervisor, often gets called in to help with the dirty work in the middle of the night. “I have my hands in pretty much all the pots you can get them in,” he said.

He’s not the only one. “It’s collectively a team effort,” he said. “Everybody is covering everybody’s back…in these situations.”

They have to work as a team when working 12-hour shifts, and Bartlett said that situation probably won’t change. The DPW can’t hire a larger staff, because extra personnel are needed only during winter months. “We couldn’t justify the staff the rest of the year,” said Bartlett.

Even if they could justify additional personnel, a cold winter would still bring additional expenses, since keeping salt trucks supplied is usually the department’s greatest expense. “Even with a larger staff they would still be working the long hours,” Bartlett explained.