IRON RIVER—After about six hours of sleep, Kris DuFresne woke in the wee hours of Feb. 4 thirsty. Simple problem, simple solution.
Or not. DuFresne wandered into the bathroom of her rented house on Sturgeon Street in Iron River, grabbed her drinking cup and turned on the faucet. All she got was a drip of water. And then some gurgling noises from inside the pipe.
That was it.
“I thought, ‘Oh crap,’” DuFresne said 10 days later. “About a week earlier, I had one of these workers (who was thawing water lines) knock on my door and ask me if I was the one with the frozen water line. So I knew some people were having issues with this.”
So with rising apprehension, DuFresne quickly moved to the kitchen. No water. Then down to the basement. Again, zilch.
Thus began DuFresne’s odyssey with what has become an all-too-common hassle in Iron County this winter. Folks around the area, throughout the Upper Peninsula and the rest of the Midwest have been dealing with frozen water lines and life, at least for a time, without running water.
At the Feb. 19 Iron River City Council meeting, City Manager Perry Franzoi said the number of lines frozen in Iron River is increasing daily. As of Feb. 14, he said, 62 lines had been reported frozen, and that city had probably spent over $30,000 to thaw them.
“This is a catastrophe that we could not have anticipated,” Franzoi told the council.
Local welder Mike Brickman has been working nearly non-stop thawing frozen lines from Amasa to Watersmeet, and the phone keeps on ringing.
“It’s probably over 100 [calls] now,” Brickman said just after he finished working on one line during last Thursday’s blizzard. “I get calls every day. Probably the first hour of every day I spend returning phone calls from people who need help.”
The abnormal cold has pushed the frost past the depth of the water lines. Road Commission Superintendent Doug Tomasoski said that MDOT has taken readings at M-73, M-189 and U.S. 2 by Forest Highway 16. The depth of the frost ranges from 76 inches on M-189 to 91 inches on U.S. 2.
Those readings may be deeper than in residential areas because the snow, which acts as insulation against the cold, has been plowed. But those numbers give an indication of what homeowners, renters and businesses are dealing with.
DuFresne, a renter, texted back-and-forth with her landlord throughout the day once she discovered she was one of the unfortunate ones. Eventually, it was determined that the frozen portion of the line was the city’s responsibility.
The solution was to attach a hose from the fire hydrant that runs through her yard to her back door down to the basement and into the utility sink faucet.
This plan came five days after her fateful early-morning trip to quench her thirst. Until a solution was found, DuFresne and her daughter Emilie roughed it.
“The first thing we did was go down to Shopko and buy three 24-packs of bottled water,” DuFresne said. “Basically, I was first worried about water consumption because I have pets, too. Thank God for bottled water. Twenty or 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have had that option.
“But then we had to think about flushing the toilet.”
So DuFresne and her daughter turned to Mother Nature for help on that one. The pair brought snow into the house and melted it in a big pot on the stove. Once melted, they simply poured water into the tank so it would flush.
Showers were taken at friends’ homes. Paper plates and plastic forks replaced their normal kitchenware. Doing the laundry was delayed.
Now DuFresne has running water because of the hose attached to the fire hydrant, but her actual line remains frozen and will be for some time.
In response to this problem much of the county has been urged to run water indefinitely to keep the lines from freezing. Caspian, Crystal Falls and Iron River have all asked their citizens to run their water until further notice.
Caspian City Manager John Stokoski, whose town has had 21 frozen water lines, including those at the fire hall and the multi-purpose building, said the rumor mill has been working overtime.
“Honestly, people are calling a lot,” Stokoski said. “I would say about five per day on average are asking about what they should do.”
Hematite Township has also asked its customers to run their water until further word.
Gaastra is the one city that has not issued such an order. City Manager Chris Stachowicz said most of the city’s water lines run under the alleys where the snow buildup has kept the frost from penetrating deep enough to cause major issues.
At present, Gaastra has only had one freeze-up.
Iron River Township, Bates Township and Mansfield Township are dealing with their residents on an individual basis. No township-wide order has been issued in these areas.
Stambaugh Township is under normal water-running rules. Anyone who is unsure whether they should run their water should contact their city or township official.
Just because the “let run” announcements have been sent out doesn’t mean all are heeding the call, Franzoi said.
Some city residents are not running their water despite the let-run order, Franzoi said. “As a result, we’re getting more freeze-ups. We have been bleeding hydrants in an attempt to get warmer water into the system. But we’re urging people to run their water. If people don’t let the water run, because of the depth of the frost, it’s going to freeze.”
And as the freeze-ups accumulate, folks like Brickman will be seen throughout the county day and night, blizzard or not.
“I would state this problem as extreme,” Brickman said. “This has been an extreme year. One of the worst I’ve seen.”