City of Newton responds to water main breaks, energy usage levels during polar vortex

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Sub-zero temperatures and windchills lingered in the area last week — forcing city staff to respond in a number of ways.

A string of bitterly cold days, some with snowfall, led to a busy week for municipal workers in Newton — there were the prerequisite sidewalks to clear, but much more as well. 

"Public Works staff stood strong through this unusual winter storm event and served our community with pride," said Kelly McElroy, city manager. "We are incredibly grateful for their service."

City staff responded to an emergency energy declaration that led to rolling blackouts — not only did city staff prepare downtown for possible rolling blackouts but staff started up backup generators normally reserved with helping during the summer heat. 

Public Works staff had a very busy week responding to a variety of issues related to the snow and freezing temperatures:

Park and Cemetery

The Park and Cemetery team performed three funeral services this week in the cold temperatures. They also cleared walkways at public buildings including the Meridian Center that had a few events this week.

Energy use

The City is a part of an Evergy program that allows for lower rates because they agree to divert power loads to backup generators when requested during peak usage periods. The City typically has 30 minutes to divert once requested to maintain rates and inclusion in the program.

"Until this storm, the City had never been asked to divert [power] during cold months, only during hot temperature periods of high-power usage," McElroy said.  "The Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants, First Street Booster Station, and the SE Booster Station all diverted power throughout the week as requested for a total of 54 hours."

Street maintenance staff and one sanitation employee responded to the storm event by plowing snow and treating intersections. In preparation for rolling blackouts, staff set out temporary stop signs at key intersections to allow for a quick response.

More than 290 man-hours were spent on this storm.

"Our mechanics were especially critical during this event due to the variety of equipment issues that occurred due to the extended freezing temperatures," McElroy said. "We are fortunate to have such skilled individuals on our team."

Those mechanics were faced with helping repair and clean snow removal equipment — and getting trucks for the sanitation department on the road when they froze up after a three-day weekend and a record -28 degree night on Feb. 16. 

Water and Sewer Maintenance crews responded to two water main breaks during the bitter cold week, and they also were called 100 times for meter problems — some due to frozen meters and others were due to frozen pipes on the customer side. The department responded to 50 after-hours calls for frozen pipes and various other equipment repairs at the plants and towers.

"As thawing occurs, we expect to see additional line failures due to the shifting ground," McElroy said. "Meters were read for one half of the town, and the other half will occur next week."