Why do Gatineau's water mains keep breaking?

As Gatineau deals with its fourth water main break in two weeks, some are saying its aging water system is vulnerable to shifts in temperature.

Aging pipes, falling water temperatures might be to blame

A water main on Alexandre-Taché Boulevard ruptured on the evening of Dec. 17, prompting the city to issue boil-water advisories to over 24,000 residences. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

As Gatineau deals with its fourth water main break in two weeks, some are saying its aging water system is vulnerable to shifts in temperature.

Louise Boudrias, city councillor for District Parc-de-la-Montagne-Saint-Raymond, said Gatineau needs to take a look at what other municipalities are doing when it comes to water infrastructure.

In an interview last week, Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said the city earmarked $32 million for water and sewer systems in 2018 — but Boudrias said that might not be enough. 

"I think it's a serious situation. We have to look into it," she said. "Are we investing enough money into our infrastructure? I'm not sure about that."

Since Dec. 17, the city has seen four water main breaks. The most serious break, on Alexandre-Taché Boulevard, flooded a dozen homes and prompted the city to issue a boil-water advisory to over 24,000 residences.

Gatineau Coun. Louise Boudrias says the city will have to look into fixing the water system in 2019, after four water main breaks in the last two weeks. (Radio-Canada)

Less than a day later, another break happened on Saint-René Boulevard E. The third break followed on Maisonneuve Boulevard on Dec. 27 and the fourth happened Saturday on Saint-Joseph Boulevard.

A spokesperson for the city of Gatineau said they still don't know the cause of the breaks that have happened in the last few weeks.

But in an interview on Dec. 18, Pedneaud-Jobin pointed at the city's aging system, which contains approximately 1,200 kilometres of water mains.

They're normally replaced during road construction projects and many of them are new, but others aren't able to be replaced until well after their normal lifespan has run its course, according to a city spokesperson.

What's causing the breaks?

The number of water main breaks in Gatineau rose almost constantly between 2006 and 2015, when they reached 344 that year.

Since then, the numbers have fallen, with 218 breaks happening in 2018 — an average of about one break every 36 hours.

Former engineer with the municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (now the city of Ottawa) Mary Trudeau said aging pipes could be a part of the problem, but the temperature of the water flowing through them may also play a part.

The water system itself is buried below the frost line, she said, meaning the pipes themselves stay relatively warm and won't freeze throughout the winter.

But Trudeau said Gatineau's water comes from the Ottawa River, where temperatures drop down to just a few degrees above freezing.

"You have this cold water going through relatively warm metal and the metal contracts," she said. "It will cause a break if there's a weakness in the pipe somewhere."

Corrosion in the pipes, vibrations from nearby construction and normal wear-and-tear can also cause breaks, but at this time of the year, the culprit is most commonly temperature changes, she said.

Stopping big breaks

In many cases, preventing a big break can be as simple as listening to vulnerable parts of the system, she said.

"You can listen for a water main break from the surface," she said. "It's this technology, basically like a doctor listens to your heartbeat, listening for the hiss of water escaping."

And catching the leaks when they're small can prevent the more expensive fix for a bigger break.

Boudrias said that in 2019, Gatineau councillors should be asking some tough questions about the system — in comparison, Ottawa isn't experiencing the same number of breaks, despite facing the same challenging temperature changes.

"The infrastructure is very old. We know that we have a lot of money that needs to be invested," she said. "I think that we need to compare ourselves [to other municipalities] to be able to make the proper decisions."

With files from Audrey Roy