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Crews dig in Niagara Falls to find out why pipes froze

NIAGARA FALLS – Life was especially unpleasant last winter at more than 230 homes in Niagara Falls, when the residents had no running water because of frozen water pipes. Some went without water for more than month.

Carol Garito endured six days in her 72nd Street home without running water. To have enough water to flush the toilet, she had to melt snow in her microwave.

So when she saw workers cut a nearly 23-foot trench in the street on Wednesday morning, the frustration she had felt last winter turned into skepticism over the authorities’ attempts to deal with the cluster of frozen water services on the street.

“I can’t believe that they’re doing this when they know what the problem is,” Garito said, standing near the corner of 72nd and Girard Avenue.

Garito, and others in the neighborhood, believe the root of the problem that caused the water outages is that the water lines aren’t deep enough under the ground.

The street was repaved in 2010, and according to residents, that’s when the problem with frozen services emerged.

Water-line depth was one of the potential issues officials from the city and the Niagara Falls Water Board were looking at as work began Wednesday. Workers dug two test holes on 72nd Street, the first excavations done in the wake of last winter’s brutal cold.

Citywide, 238 properties reported frozen services to the Water Board, 18 on 72nd Street alone. It was the second winter in a row there were frozen water services around the Falls, including on 72nd, though this past winter saw a spike in the number of incidents across the city.

When the problem occurred in 2014, Mayor Paul A. Dyster declared a state of emergency in the areas of 72nd and 77th streets.

The digging and measurements taken by on-site engineers is a project being undertaken jointly by the city and the Water Board to try and determine the underlying cause for the service problems.

The first excavation Wednesday happened near the corner of 72nd and Girard, in front of 602 72nd. Another site in the 500 block of 72nd was to be the next site examined, officials said.

At each site, engineers were to be examining the depth of the water lines, the depth of the roadway at the lines and the materials around the water pipes, Water Board Executive Director Paul J. Drof said.

“We’ve asked for a third party, for independent verification to take those measurements, to basically give us documentation in their professional opinion,” Drof said as a crew worked nearby with a small excavator and shovels.

Drof estimated the cost of the work – which he described as “exploratory” – to be about $5,000 for each excavation site.

He said the Water Board chose to hire a contractor so employees weren’t taken away from repair work and other day-to-day work of the agency.

The Water Board is paying for the excavation, while city crews from the Department of Public Works will handle the restoration work. The Water Board hired Glynn Geotechnical Services in Lockport, which subcontracted the excavation to J.R. Swanson Plumbing and Contracting.

Representatives of Clark Patterson Lee, an engineering firm working as a consultant for the city, were also on hand observing the work.

Drof said the sites for the exploratory digging were chosen by Glynn Geotechnical after the Water Board provided information on properties that had frozen services, including the dates of freezing and when the cases were reported.

A preliminary report by Clark Patterson Lee commissioned by the city in the spring of 2014 identified “inadequate cover” as a “major deficiency” in leading to the frozen water services on 72nd and 77th streets. It also found water mains in some areas were shallower than they should have been.

Water Board officials criticized the report earlier this year, calling it a “cursory investigation.”

Officials were hesitant to put a time frame on how long this phase of digging would go on. There may be a need to dig in more areas of 72nd Street, Drof said, depending on what’s found in the preliminary data.

“Hopefully, if we find a reason,” he said, “we can design a fix and hopefully have it repaired, hopefully before the winter season.”

In addition to 72nd Street, excavations are also being eyed potentially for Independence Avenue, Royal Avenue and 77th Street, Drof said.

It is going to take the engineers “some time” to gather data, Dyster said.

“They understand that we want a rapid result because we want to have the opportunity to do a project in this construction season, if one’s identified,” the mayor said, “but we also want to make certain that we get the right solution to the problem, not just a quick one.”

Niagara County Legislator Mark J. Grozio, who represents the LaSalle area of the city, which includes 72nd Sreet, said he’s been working with residents on this problem for two years.

“It’s nice to see somebody acting on it, but this should have been done a year ago,” Grozio said.

email: abesecker@buffnews.com