For 13 minutes on Friday, Jan. 3, the entire city of Milaca was without water while Milaca Public Works officials scrambled to perform a water department’s equivalent of bypass surgery.
At about 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 3, the city’s water tower on Eighth Street Southeast failed, emptying nearly 500,000 gallons of water and sending it rushing into the street of Milaca’s industrial park.
“It was not a crack,” said Milaca Public Works Director Steve Burklund. “It was not a conventional break.”
While the exact cause of the water tower failure was not known as of Tuesday morning, Burklund knew this: “In my 31 years of working here, it is the worst I have ever seen.”
A water pipe broke underneath the foundation of the water tower, Burklund said.
Burklund was at his office at the public works building on the north end of Milaca when he first suspected something out of the ordinary had happened.
A page from Mille Lacs County’s emergency center came across his radio notifying Milaca Police that the Public Works Department was about to be paged out for a report of a water leak near the water tower.
Burklund didn’t wait around for the page. He got in his truck and abruptly headed over to the site of the reported leak.
“I got there and knew immediately we had a problem,” Burklund said.
Water was coming from the ground from four locations around the water tower, he said.
There was so much water coming out of the ground that Burklund said he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“It was like the Hoover Dam erupted. It was a tsunami of water,” he said.
Eighth Street was flooded with water that was a foot to a foot and a half deep, he said.
And on Monday afternoon, while looking at computerized water flow and water pressure records from the morning of Friday, Jan. 3, Burklund was able to say with absolute confidence that the water tower had spewed about 15,000 gallons of water per minute until all 500,000 gallons of water had emptied from the tower. To illustrate the severity of the break further, Burklund said that, prior to the break, the tower was holding 36 feet of water in its holding tank. In 30 minutes, the water depth had deteriorated to approximately zero, he said.
“This was catastrophic. Something blew apart,” Burklund said.
When Burklund saw the water pouring from around the water tower, he immediately called Darryl Stimmler of the Water Department and had him shut off water flow at the water tower by closing two valves. Burklund, meanwhile, rushed over to the water treatment plant on the west side of the city to make adjustments that allowed water flow from the facility’s 250,000 gallon clear well to meet the demands of the city’s water customers.
Back at the water tower, city crews teamed with the county and Hjort Excavating to begin cleaning up the water and dirty slush that accumulated around the tower.
Hjort made arrangements for an emergency locate of utility lines and, with those results in hand, began digging around the water main leading to the tower, starting about 50 feet north of the water tower.
“We got 9 feet from the tower and hit concrete,” Burklund said.
They literally hit a wall. The pipe appeared to be incased in concrete, much like being placed inside a tunnel. They could see the pipe for quite a few feet, but not far enough to get a view of where the leak was.
KLM Engineering Inc. of Lake Elmo, which specializes in water tower structural engineering and inspections, was called in. They arrived on scene at about 7:30 p.m. Friday and surveyed the damage.
As the night went on, it was determined that the pipes needed to be covered to prevent freezing and further damage, Burklund said.
“We knew the extreme cold was coming and had to backfill what we had dug up,” he said.
That job took four truckloads of fill sand.
On Saturday, a crew came in with cameras to view the pipes from the inside.
“The pictures definitely showed we have problems,” Burklund said.
In the short-term, the city hopes to have water running to and from the water tower using a system of bypassing the current pipe and its break. A few years back, an auxiliary valve to the water tower’s main vertical pipe was installed as a back-up system.
A new line was to be installed Wednesday connecting the water main, at a point before the break, to the pipe inside the tower.
“That will allow us to get back to normal and take a deep breath,” Burklund said.
That leaves the problem of identifying the location of the break and the plan of attack for repairing it.
Because the break appears to be underneath the water tower’s foundation, and the only access into the water tower is a 36-inch access door, heavy equipment such as Bobcats and backhoes cannot be utilized to get at the source of the leak.
“We’re going to have to hand dig about 10 feet from the inside,” Burklund said.
That will be complicated by the fact that they will have to get through about 4 inches of concrete, a foot of sand, 3 to 4 feet of dirt, and then another layer of concrete, he said.
To prepare for the job, ground thaw units have been placed inside the water tower to help thaw the frozen ground.