By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City's water pipes and meters are faring badly during what could end up as the chilliest month here in more than 30 years.
Since Friday, city crews have had to deal with more than 75 frozen meters or "service lines" - the pipes that run between meters and main water lines, said Michelle Owen, the city's public works director.
"I've never seen it this bad in my 10 years," Owen said Tuesday morning.
Owen said she's talked with residents who have lived here much longer who agreed with her assessment.
The rash of ice-clogged meters and pipes has prompted Owen to tender a simple request to city residents: Keep a thin stream of cold water running from one tap (no need to have multiple faucets going) around the clock.
That steady stream will foil frost in your pipes, as well as help prevent meters and service lines from freezing.
The request, which has been posted on the Herald's and the city's web sites, seems to have paid off already, Owen said this morning.
The city received only one report of a frozen meter this morning, compared with more than 25 on Tuesday.
"A huge improvement," Owen said.
Meters and service lines have been particularly vulnerable during the prolonged cold spell. The likely reason is that meters and service lines usually are installed beneath a gravel street shoulder, sidewalk or a paved street.
These surfaces don't have the insulating layer of deep snow that lies on yards and helps protect the water pipes between homes and meters.
The city is responsible for thawing or replacing frozen water meters and service lines, Owen said. However, if the same meter freezes twice, the city charges a $40 service call for subsequent thawings.
That almost never happens, though, Owen said.
She said city crews have racked up several dozen hours of overtime since the weekend.
Residents are liable for problems that happen on their property, whether beneath their home or business, or along the water line between buildings and the meter.
Owen recommends residents run a stream of water about the width of a pencil shaft (not just the sharpened tip), rather than just a trickle of drops.
Water is pretty cheap in Baker City, she points out - one "unit" of water, which is 748 gallons, costs 63 cents.
A typical faucet flowing a pencil-width stream equates to a cost of perhaps 15 to 25 cents per day.
Owen urges residents to keep the water flowing until a prolonged period of much warmer weather. It takes more than a couple of days in the 30s to thaw the ground.
City officials are trying another tactic to reduce the risk of frozen meters and lines.
Over the next few days the city, which normally gets its water from streams and springs in the Elkhorn Mountains about 10 miles west of town, will mix in water from its backup well, Owen said.
The well water is about 8 to 10 degrees warmer.
The well water actually comes from the same source - the city has a permit from the state allowing it to divert mountain water into the well, where it's stored in the aquifer for use during the heat of summer.
During the summer, water from the well is about the same temperature as water from the mountains.
The cold snap that started around Christmas is noteworthy only for its duration.
No single day has been exceptionally cold; the lowest was 5 below zero, on Jan. 16 and 21.
Temperatures of 10 below or colder are not uncommon in January.
But the persistence of the arctic weather has allowed frost to sink deeper underground than is usual.
The temperature has dipped below zero on 12 of 22 days this month, and the "warmest" morning during the 12-day span was 1 degree above.
(Today was balmy by recent standards, with a low of 12.)
Moreover, the temperature rose above freezing on only one day - Jan. 9, when the high, reached briefly, was 40.
The average high temperature so far for the month is about 23 degrees, well below the long-term average of 34 degrees.
Although warmer weather is forecast, with highs in the 30s early next week, this January is on pace to be the coldest month, in terms of average high temperature, since January 1979. The average high that month was 20.2 degrees.