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Pipes have winter ups and downs Water main breaks in Buffalo increased 55 percent in January over last year

If you think this wild winter has been personally trying, the pipes that snake beneath Buffalo's streets feel your pain.

Water main breaks were up 55 percent last month compared with a similar period last year, city officials confirmed Monday. Crews had to make 31 repairs in January, compared with 20 a year ago.

The weather is the culprit, said James Campolong, project manager for American Water Services, the company that runs Buffalo's water system.

"When the frost gets really deep, the ground starts to move," Campolong said. "The water pipes don't move very well."

The bitterly cold temperatures haven't been the only problem, said Peter J. Merlo, the city's chief engineer. Big fluctuations in temperatures also can cause pipes to break.

"The freeze-thaw cycle causes the ground to heave," Merlo said.

A report on water main breaks indicated that last month's problems were spread throughout the city. Crews made repairs on dozens of streets, including Elmwood and Michigan avenues, and West Ferry and East Utica streets.

"Fortunately, none of the [pipe] breaks caused major disruptions," Campolong said.

Buffalo has a 900-mile maze of underground water pipes. Most lines were installed between 1880 and 1890, and from 1920 to 1930. Some lines date back to the mid-1800s. But water officials said the age of the pipes hasn't been a major factor in the rash of recent repairs, since freeze-thaw problems can be equally damaging to newer pipes.

While city repair crews have been busier than usual, Merlo said this winter hasn't been as bad for water main breaks as the 2003 season, when fluctuating temperatures caused even bigger problems.

But water main breaks are running far above the annual average, Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said.

"It has been a tough winter," he said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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