Editorials

It seems like a logical question that should have a simple answer: when water pipes serving homes and businesses in Winthrop freeze up in super-frigid temperatures, why can’t the town help those people and restore their service?

Then the second you start talking about, it’s no longer the least bit simple, and to the people with frozen pipes it’s not the least bit logical.

A couple of weeks ago, when the mercury plunged to way below zero for many nights, some Winthrop water customers found that the pipes from the town’s water mains to their individual services had frozen.

There are lots of ways that can happen — the pipes aren’t buried deep enough, there’s not enough insulation (snow is a great insulator, unless it’s been plowed away), the service lines may be old and deteriorated. Some decades-old connections in Winthrop freeze fairly regularly even when the atmosphere isn’t Arctic.

There’s a simple way to prevent or at least moderate the probability of having frozen pipes: leave a slow drip of water running in a tap or toilet. Water that’s moving through a pipe is less likely to freeze. Non-moving water wants to be an ice cube.

The town sends out notices to its water customers, reminding them to think about letting a faucet run when it gets really cold, but who reads those things in November? And even people who know about the running-water remedy can sometimes forget or turn taps off as a matter of routine.

Nearly 30 water hookups in Winthrop had freezing pipe problems, and every one of them had its own idiosyncrasies — where and how deep they’re buried, what the pipes are made of, where the water meter is, etc. Which means that even if the town had the means to fix them, it would be dealing with 30 problems, not just one.

And while the town has provided assistance where it can and attended to water meters when possible, there’s a law on the Winthrop books that makes property owners responsible for their own water hookups — from the water main to the building, it’s your problem to deal with.

That’s what the town has been telling people — not to be mean or insensitive, but to be lawful and attentive to its potential liabilities. Residents and Town Council members alike have expressed what could politely be called consternation at the legalese stalemate.

So what’s to be done? Waiting until the weather warms up enough to thaw the pipes is one option, and not a particularly popular suggestion if you’re lugging water cans. Trying to get a local plumber or contractor to help is another. Some customers have rigged up temporary water-supply systems with help from neighbors. If you’ve sat through the last couple of town council meetings, you’ve endured mind-numbing technical explanations of how some remedies might work, or why they might not.

There’s also been a lot of criticism of the relevant ordinance, which was adopted in 1993. So in nearly a quarter of a century, it’s not been much of an issue. Now it’s being excoriated as a stupid idea in the first place.

Perhaps it was, but the ordinance is the ordinance, and bad-mouthing it won’t change that. You can gripe about it, un-friend it, beat it with a snow shovel, Trump-trash it on Twitter, or track down the people who created it and yell at them, and it will still be the ordinance.

It’s almost certain that the Town Council will review the ordinance soon — but not soon enough for this winter, given the bureaucratic path that ordinance revisions must follow. Changing it to satisfy the frozen water pipe people won’t be easy, however.

There are several issues: Where would the money come from to pay for repairs? The town’s water system operation is entirely supported by its own fund, which is in turn supported by water usage fees. Would town residents be OK with rate increases? How do you define who owns what when there’s a town water line under private property, or a private water line under a public right-of-way? And there are still restrictions on how the town can spend any money for the exclusive benefit of a private party.

For all that, the time to start talking is now. It’s not an issue that’s just going to melt away.

– Don Nelson