Declaring emergency

MARQUETTE – As Marquette County approaches $2 million in unbudgeted costs, incurred over months spent battling broken and frozen water mains and service lines caused by this winter’s severe cold weather, county officials on Thursday again submitted a request to Gov. Rick Snyder for an emergency declaration.

In late February the county declared a countywide state of emergency, the first step in appealing to officials at the state level for help. On March 4, the county petitioned the governor, hoping for a statewide declaration of emergency or disaster, and was ultimately denied.

A declaration of a state of emergency would provide state resources to aid with local emergency response and recovery, while in a “state of disaster” declaration the state runs response and recovery efforts itself.

After the denial at the beginning of March, local government officials across the U.P. worked with state representatives to coordinate a peninsula-wide campaign to communicate to Lansing lawmakers and other state officials the full scope of the situation and gravity of the problems. County officials hope that the governor and the Legislature now have a grasp enough of the U.P.’s plight to provide what’s needed most – money.

“It’s at a critical point,” said Teresa Schwalbach, emergency management coordinator for Marquette County. “They are more aware of the issue now, and we’ve been giving them a lot of additional information, because … it’s just getting worse. We’re going to hit a point now where it’s going to start costing more money because of the thaw.”

There are currently some 40 water mains frozen throughout the county; some of those may be broken. More than 5,600 water customers are on let-runs; even so, departments of public works have thawed hundreds of mains and lines with arc welders, often working shifts as long as 16 hours. Area fire departments fighting fires have encountered numerous obstacles in fire hydrants frozen solid. County water plants have pumped more than 181 million gallons of water since the bitter cold set in – most of it sent circulating through cities’ water systems, out of people’s faucets and down their drains, just to keep mains and laterals from freezing solid. The Negaunee-Ishpeming Water Authority, which supplies both cities, has for months been operating near its 3 million gallons daily capacity, and this week began pumping 200,000 to 250,000 gallons from Ishpeming Township to help reduce demand. As of Tuesday, the county was about $1.6 million overbudget.

As spring finally arrives and the ground begins to thaw, the frost – which in some places is as deep as 10 feet – will wreak havoc on cities’ infrastructure, shifting pipes and mains in the ground.

And those mains that have already split or broken, but have been frozen solid, will begin to send water up to the surface.

“I’ve explained it as anticipating an underground sprinkler system to go off as this frost starts coming out of the ground,” said Jon Kangas, superintendent of the Ishpeming Department of Public Works.

Kangas said Ishpeming alone is currently somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 in unbudgeted costs. And the city has about 2,000 feet of frozen water main in five segments throughout the city. Four of these are cast-iron, which he said tends to split from end to end when frozen. The cost of replacing 2,000 feet of water main? Kangas estimates an additional $500,000.

“Anything’s possible at this point,” he said. “I think right now we’re in the eye of the storm. It’s kind of the calm between the first wave and the second wave. The first wave was everything freezing. The second wave is everything thawing out. And when it thaws out, that’s really when I think we’re going to start seeing these costs skyrocket due to broken mains.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.