With extreme weather conditions on the increase, essential services are placed under greater threat. Consider the impact of extreme weather on the City of Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, with a population of about 250,000. Regina has been suffering a heat wave combined with a drought. In this part of the world it is the summer heat that causes the greatest amount of ground movement as the clay-based soil dries out and shifts. The unusually dry and hot spring and summer weather has resulted in more ground shift than typical, creating an unusually high number of breaks within the water infrastructure. The maintenance cost for pipe repair in September 2017, alone, was an estimated $1M.
Newer areas of the city, with plastic pipes, were less affected. It was the older neighborhoods with concrete, cast iron and PE pipes that experienced most of the damage to this essential infrastructure. Cast iron or cement pipes are rigid and they do not respond well to large amounts of soil movement.
The impact on residents
Many Regina residents lost water service in the summer and fall of 2017, with 103 breaks in August and 125 in September. Both months setting new records. Typically, on average there would be 20 water main breaks August, and the previous record for August was 72. Compared to the 125 breaks in September 2017, September 2016 saw only 28 breaks. One must go as far back as September 2012, where there were 115 water main breaks, to find a comparable year.
A City of Regina spokesperson announced that workers do attempt to warn affected residents, by going door-to-door to notify residents if their water service needs to be cut. Alternatively, they provide a written notice in mailboxes. Emergency situations, however, do not always accommodate such a response, resulting in water being shut off without notice. It is good practice to keep some bottled water at home for use in such emergency situations.
Damage to the water infrastructure can be very disconcerting for residents, whether from losing service to their own home or from seeing water running down the streets. When an essential service such as water provision stops, it can be very confusing to consumers, especially the elderly. In some instances, Regina city workers provided people with jugs of water, however such stop-gap measures are unusual.
City maintenance crews prioritize all active leaks to organize their service schedules. This was no small task in September, when they were working to accommodate between seven to 10 breaks reported every day. The key deciding factors when prioritizing their pipe repairs are whether: households and businesses have running water, how many people are affected, and if there are any safety concerns. Regina utility crews extended their working day to attempt to move through their schedules quickly. City maintenance aims to reconnect the water service within 24 hours of taps running dry.
The financial implications
Regina was in a strong position, financially, to respond to the crisis. Director of waterworks Pat Wilson said that by the end of the year the city would be over budget when it comes to water mains funds. She said they will draw on reserve funds if needed. The city projects a flux in main breaks from year-to-year. When maintenance budgets are exceeded, there are emergency measures to allow a reserve, funded by utility rates, to be accessed. This buffer means that when the budget is exceeded, it doesn’t have an immediate effect on the tax-base.
Regina is a very robust case, unfortunately many cities across North America do not have the financial stability of Regina. The typical utility funding model is one of setting utility rates to a level that the populace can accommodate and tolerate, rather than one that reflects the true cost of providing a safe, reliable service. This results in inadequate water system maintenance and service and budget deficits.
The preventive approach
Cities that are well managed take preventive measures to minimize crisis situations, especially those more prone to SOS events due to ground or weather conditions. Well-run utilities run forecast modelling of main break estimates, in some cases alongside a program to replace pipes that are reaching their projected life-span. They also employ technological measures of water loss detection. By applying the next-generation pipe repair and connect products, service pipes can accommodate ground movement through dynamic deflection, which reduces the risk of future pipe breaks.
Extreme weather events are predicted to become more common. It is imperative that utility managers have access to the funds necessary to replace and maintain the water mains infrastructure. With good forecasting and a responsive maintenance program, utility managers can be better prepared to deal with the projected weather events. With access to reserve funds, such as Regina had, even in the record-breaking years, water services can be maintained.