Officials testify on harsh winter impact at state Senate hearing

ESCANABA – Municipal leaders across the Upper Peninsula are experiencing a drain on their budgets as resources continue to be consumed in frozen pipes, overtime pay and wasted water. And the worst is yet to come.

City and county officials seeking emergency funding offered testimony Tuesday during a state Senate hearing that was video-conferenced between Lansing and five locations in the U.P. Officials from Delta and Dickinson counties were accessed from Bay College.

Officials from across the region voiced similar concerns relating to this winter’s constant freezing temperatures including frozen water and sewer lines, water main breaks, and wasted water from “let runs” to keep lines from freezing.

In addition, the extra water being run through the system is creating additional costs for water treatment and wastewater treatment as well as placing more wear and tear on equipment like pumps, said officials.

Overtime is another issue affecting budgets as workers try to keep up with freeze ups and line repairs. Some communities, like Escanaba, were thawing pipes seven days a week.

Municipalities are keeping track of the above expenses in an effort to declare a state of emergency so the state or the federal government will step in and provide help.

John Kangas, Ishpeming Public Works director who was in Lansing, stated local budgets are experiencing a financial crisis due to water and sewage problems. Greater concern is that communities are also facing health and safety issues for residents and work crews, he commented.

“It’s hitting the Upper Peninsula pretty strongly,” Kangas told those attending the video conference in the Senate hearing room.

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) led Tuesday’s hearing. During his comments, he said the statewide winter problems can be compared to other natural disasters, such as a hurricane, where there’s a crisis at hand that’s going to get worse.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about, a lot underground with the frost,” he said. “The problem is we can report only what we see but every day the problem is getting bigger.”

Casperson said a solution is needed now and to improve the process for the future. He and six other legislators are asking the administration to declare an emergency disaster to assist communities in need.

Community representatives giving testimony offered statistics on water and sewer line freeze ups, temporary hookups, let runs, water main breaks, overtime pay, and extra water and wastewater treatment costs. Water losses total in the millions of gallons.

Concern was also expressed on what could happen in the event of a fire where there are depleted water supplies and frozen water mains.

Bob Berbohm, emergency management coordinator for Delta and Schoolcraft counties, mentioned the ice buildup in Escanaba’s water towers. Gladstone has experienced frozen lift stations, he said. Farmers can’t get water to livestock, he added.

“I urge the Senate… to go ahead and provide an appropriation,” Berbohm said, comparing the current crisis to the region’s propane shortage earlier this year when funding assistance was approved. Twenty years ago, an appropriation was granted for a similar hardship winter, he said.

Escanaba City Manager Jim O’Toole said in addition to the “let runs” the city is subsidizing, some residents are letting their faucets run at their own expense.

City crews have been working long hours on frozen water and sewer lines, O’Toole added, saying he expects problems to get worse during the next six weeks with the frost leaving the ground.

Frost lines as deep as 10 feet are being recorded in some parts of the U.P. and that’s only because equipment does not measure beyond that. As the frost leaves and heaves the ground, additional damage to public infrastructures is anticipated by many communities, said officials.

Jack Dueweke, emergency management coordinator for Houghton and Keweenaw counties, said frozen water pipes to date are “just the tip of the iceberg” compared to what he foresees the frost will bring in the coming weeks.

Other community leaders expressed concerns about anticipated flooding, sewage lagoon overflows, and road damage in addition to problems that private property owners will experience.

Marquette County Chairman Gerald Corkin attended the hearing in Lansing, describing the winter-related problems in communities as “severe issues” that will get worse as the frost breaks up and more mains break.

“You’re going to have to get the National Guard to haul in water in precarious situations if fires occur,” Corkin said.

“You have a real need for help… in northern Michigan,” he added. “We’re asking for emergency funds. We’re asking for some help. We really need it.”

In addition to Escanaba, Tuesday’s video-conference connected Lansing with virtual locations in Houghton, Ironwood, Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, jlancour@dailypress.net