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Air conditioners whirring but hundreds in Winnipeg still have frozen water pipes

Councillor Paula Havixbeck

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WINNIPEG - The air conditioners are whirring in Winnipeg with temperatures recently soaring above 30 C, but below the ground it's a different story.

Hundreds of residents still have frozen water pipes.

Matthew Lawrence and his family lost water almost two months ago when their home's pipes froze. They were still frozen late last week, even as the Manitoba capital was Canada's hot spot at 32 C.

"It's amazing. It feels like the tropics and we still have frozen water pipes," Lawrence said. "To have it this hot and still be thinking there are frozen pipes underneath the ground is just kind of mind-boggling."

Lawrence, his wife and three children have been relying on his neighbour, who has allowed them to tap into his water supply. But now, Lawrence said, his neighbour's house is up for sale and it's unclear how long that setup might last.

Other cities in Canada and the United States grappled with frozen water pipes during an exceptionally cold winter, but Winnipeg's problem has dragged on the longest.

The city says there are still around 400 properties that have frozen pipes and many of them are relying on neighbours for water. That's down from around 1,200 properties in March.

Randy Hull, emergency co-ordinator for the city, said there are new reports of frozen pipes still coming in.

Even with summer-like temperatures, Hull explained, the thaw hasn't reached the frost that penetrated deep into the ground.

"With the really cold winter, the frost was pushed down to record levels in the last 130 years. We're talking eight to nine feet," Hull said. "Frost doesn't come out of the ground. The thaw has to go through the soil and thaw all the frost, all the way down to eight feet."

Hundreds of homes are still at risk and have been told to keep water flowing through taps. But with the temperature soaring outside, people are getting more complacent, Hull said.

"People are looking out the window and thinking, 'Heavens, there can't be an issue with this anymore' and they're turning the tap off. We still really need those at-risk properties to continue running their taps, as they've been asked to, until they're told by us — the city — to stop doing so."

Hull said crews are working flat out to thaw pipes manually using specialized equipment. They're covering up to 25 properties a day but are likely to be dealing with frozen pipes until well into June.

City councillor Paula Havixbeck, who is also running for mayor, said she is frustrated. Some of her constituents have been without free-flowing water for two months, she said. Many have tapped into their neighbours' water supply with a connecting hose, but that hasn't been without its challenges.

"In some cases, the connector has burst and they've had water flood their yards and we've had crews out to rectify that," she said. "I just wonder why we have so many pipes that are frozen."

Once this crisis has finally passed, Havixbeck said the city has to look at how to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"We need to look at this as a climate-change issue," she said. "One of the more urgent things is are we ... telling developers to dig pipes deep enough to prevent them being frozen?"

For homeowners such as Lawrence, better communication is key. He said no one from the city told him his property was at risk or he would have run his tap to prevent freezing.

"I thought we were good because nobody came and knocked on our door," he said. "We weren't aware that if we just kept our tap running, we'd be OK."

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