Old pipes cause water main breaks across Catonsville, Arbutus areas

When water started bubbling from a hole in Garden Ridge Road on the morning of Jan. 2, spitting rocks at Katheryn Compton’s car, she moved it and parked at the rear of her Catonsville home just minutes before the road buckled.

Compton said she “thanked the Lord that his hand was in it,” and, her car saved, she drove to work.

Hours later, close to 5 p.m., Compton’s 25-year-old daughter, also named Katheryn, was in the house when she heard the sound of water.

“All of a sudden I hear pouring rain on the house, and I’m like, ‘What is that?’” the younger Compton said.

She looked out the window and saw a torrential geyser shooting from the broken water main and soaking both sides of the town house with water that quickly turned into a sheet of ice. The spray lasted for more than four hours, she said.

The break on Garden Ridge was just one of many water main breaks reported in the southwest county area during a stretch of subfreezing temperatures that lasted more than 10 days, causing house damage, traffic closures and water service interruptions across the area.

Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works, which is responsible for repairing Baltimore County’s water main breaks, did not respond to requests for a count of the number of breaks in the southwest area.

A review of the city’s 311 request mapping service, however, showed at least a dozen reports of “water leaking (outside)” over a three-day period between Jan. 3 and 5 in the southwest area. Dozens more reported having no water at their business or residence.

With the lengthy cold stretch, problems with burst pipes were endemic across the Baltimore region, prompting the city to order its repair crews to work 12-hour shifts.

One 12-inch water main break in Arbutus, at the intersection of Leeds Avenue and Greystone Road, left 85 customers and four hydrants without water, Baltimore County spokeswoman Lauren Watley said.

The break, reported around 1:30 p.m. Jan. 3, prompted a shutdown of a segment of Leeds Avenue while repairs were made.

Kelly Pierce, who lives on Maiden Choice Lane in Arbutus, said that on Jan. 4 her family had no water for more than 24 hours.

“Luckily, it snowed,” Pierce said, noting that her family was able to melt snow for some needs. “You get creative.”

“We always have water issues on our street,” Arbutus resident Cheryl Allen, who lives on Greystone Road, said in a Facebook message.

The Y in Catonsville invited area residents without water to use the center's locker rooms for showers, even if they were not members, said Dawn Chrystal-Wolfe, the district executive director. The center announced the invitation in a Facebook post that was shared by more than 70 people.

“We feel that as a community organization, we have a responsibility to the community to help in times like this,” Wolfe said.

Water main breaks, Watley said, are common in the area this time of year.

“The county’s working to be proactive in eliminating breaks with investing more in infrastructure,” Watley said. “Unfortunately, our infrastructure is old, so it happens.”

More than half of the county’s pipes are more than 50 years old, and have “surpassed their life span,” Watley said.

Pipes can break when the weather is cold because the ground expands and contracts when it freezes, and because pipes contract when they get cold, said Charles Schwartz, chair of the University of Maryland, College Park’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Some of the county’s pipes, Watley said, were made of terra cotta — a material rarely used today — that prompted Schwartz to say, “Wow, they must be old.”

Older pipe materials like terra cotta and cast iron are brittle and more prone to breakage under stress, Schwartz said.

When pipes break, Watley said they are replaced with a new and more durable material, adding that the county is attempting to proactively inspect and replace weak parts of the water system.

“Baltimore County has invested over a billion dollars in water and sewer infrastructure, inspecting hundreds of miles of pipe, rebuilding pumping stations, replacing old lines and monitoring the system,” the county said in a July press release last year. The county has 2,139 miles of water lines, the release said.

Although old pipes are a good indicator of the likelihood of a break somewhere, “it’s hard to predict where these things are going to occur,” Schwartz said.

Some breaks in the southwest area spilled water-turned-ice onto roads and disrupted traffic. For Compton, however, the unique spray of water — likely caused, Schwartz said, by a small main break under intense pressure — resulted in damage not just to the road, but to her own home.

“[The living room] is the one room in the house that didn’t get leaks,” said Rebekah Johnson, 27, who also lives in the house.

“It was actually starting to pour into the basement from our door,” the younger Compton said. The family lugged its important belongings up the stairs and ran the sump pump as the water in the basement rose to between 4 and 5 inches, she said.

The water also sprayed on the townhouse roof, and the elder Compton said that her bedroom ceiling was “ruined” and her bed soaked, forcing her to sleep on the couch.

To repair the damage to her home, Compton hopes to get some sort of restitution from the government.

“They let this tower of water, it was being pelted on the house for four hours,” Compton said, estimating that the geyser stopped at around 9:30 p.m.

Homeowners whose property is damaged by county-owned pipes breaking can file a claim with the county’s claims management division, Watley said.

More water main breaks and claims could very well be ahead. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics, the average minimum temperature in Maryland is between 21 and 30 in January and February, and remains below 40 degrees in March.

The day after the break, Compton's town house and both the front and back yards were covered in a thick sheet of ice — up to nearly a foot in some places in the yard — with a porch plant hanger frozen askew and a concrete path so slick that visitors were better off walking across the more chunky ice on the grass.

Power lines in the rear were dripping with icicles. The car parked in the rear was frozen shut, and the back screen door was stuck open. A tree in Compton’s yard was frozen into a white, lacy ice sculpture.

“I can handle a fountain up front, whatever,” Johnson said. “But a geyser? That’s a very different story.”

Amid the ice, however, the elder Compton found a silver — or rather, white — lining, saying: “Isn’t the tree out there beautiful?”

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