The big chill

Cold weather causes widespread problems with frozen water pipes

By Jan-Mikael Patterson
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Feb. 10, 2011

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The recent arctic blast that hit the Navajo Reservation froze water pipes, caused school cancellations, slowed fuel pumps and made your nostrils stick when inhaling.

But it wasn't cold enough to warrant a state of emergency declaration, according to Navajo Nation officials. The last such declaration was Operation Snowfall last winter.


Neglected elders huddle in below-zero temps

The lowest temperature on the Navajo Reservation last week was 23 degrees below zero, recorded at 6 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, in Window Rock, according to Chris Outler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Flagstaff.

The coldest temperature so far this winter is 25 below, recorded on New Year's Day in Window Rock. In December the low was minus 17 degrees.

"The coldest it got in Chinle was minus 9 degrees and that was at 5 a.m. on Feb. 3. And in Kayenta it was minus 6 degrees at 8:25 a.m. on February 2," Outler said.

The cold has kept Navajo Tribal Utility Authority water crews busy fixing water outages, with several hundred homes reporting frozen pipes.

"NTUA has 36,000 water customers in six districts and we received less than 400 calls for service area-wide relating to water outages," said Deenise Becenti, NTUA spokesperson.

She reminded customers that the utility can only work on problems that occur in lines leading up to the water meter. Problems beyond that point, including frozen or leaking pipes inside the home, are the responsibility of the property owner.

"We do, however, answer all outage calls and dispatch crews to the site, where it will be determined if the problem is before or after the meter," she said. "Sometimes the outages lasted a few hours, sometimes more than a day. In all calls, our crews work hard to restore services as soon as possible. We thank customers for their patience and understanding."

Based on the reports, the majority of the water outages are due to lines freezing beyond the meter. Exposed pipes leading into a home, underground lines that are too shallow - the freeze line is generally about three feet deep in this area - and customers leaving the heat off inside when they are not home account for most of the problems.

Also, most of the trouble is reported in mobile homes.

NTUA is advising customers to take precautions, such as leaving faucets on at a slow drip overnight to keep water flowing, insulating pipes especially in unheated spaces such as under the house, and disconnecting outdoor water hoses.

"We advise people not to try to thaw out frozen pipes with an open flame or torch, because it may cause more damage," Becenti said. "We recommend that people call a licensed plumber and the NTUA Web site,, offers a list of qualified plumbers."

Recent reports include:

  • Chinle District had 110 calls, mostly dealing with frozen pipes beyond the meter.
  • Crownpoint had 45 calls. The largest incident involved a main line in Red Rock, N.M., south of Gallup, that broke after the frozen ground shifted. It took about 6.5 hours to fix, with about 25 customers affected.
  • Dilkon had 25 calls, mostly frozen water pipes beyond the meter.
  • Fort Defiance District recorded 75 calls, no major water line breaks. However, crews did replace broken frost plates, which are located below the water meter and help prevent damage to the meter.
  • Shiprock had 116 water outage calls, mostly beyond the meter with a few leaks in main lines. Crews got stuck in snow trying to reach customers at the base of the mountain near Sanostee, Cove and Sheepsprings, N.M. Eventually they got through, NTUA said.
  • In Ramah Chapter, Dorothy Ramone with the Ramah NTUA said, "We have two water operators on duty right now and they're very busy. The calls are coming mainly from the housing areas and some rural community homes. It's just frozen water lines mainly. We just do tech repairs and maintenance, meter work and different work orders. It sure keeps us busy all day."
  • In Hard Rock the chapter house, which is a modular unit, has had trouble with pipes freezing, said Sophia Begay, chapter office specialist. "It's the same with people from the rural areas and residences," she said.

Lorraine Horseherder of the Hard Rock Senior Center noted that the elders mainly complain about the cold temperatures.

"The roads are passable," said Begay. "The storm that hit us dropped a little and all that melted. It's just really cold right now. The wind really makes it cold here."

• The Tsaile/Wheatfields Chapter House, which was hit hard during Operation Snowfall last year, reported no problems from this winter's cold temperatures.

The water problems have meant long days for NTUA crews, Becenti noted.

"At NTUA we have the rule that no employee works after a 15-hour day, so the crew had to adjust to making sure that all areas were covered," she said. "In some cases, districts will share crew members to keep up with the calls."

Meanwhile, NTUA is bracing for the inevitable next crisis - when the snow melts - which sometimes leads to soil shifting and causes water mains to break.

"This is also a time when our heavy machinery cannot make it to outage calls because of the heavy weight and impassable roads," Becenti said, noting that the weather also interferes with the crews' ability to do routine maintenance.

"This is where we will again be asking for the patience and understanding of our customers as we all face Mother Nature's challenges," she said.

NTUA recommends that customers keep a basic emergency kit ready, including bottled drinking water and plenty of firewood, batteries for radios and flashlights, canned or nonperishable foods, and warm clothing and blankets.

In addition to providing water, NTUA has close to 8,000 natural gas customers mostly located in larger communities. According to NTUA dispatch, however, there have not been any reports of natural gas outages such as those plaguing northern New Mexico communities served by another utility, New Mexico Natural Gas Co.

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