Can NJ’s aging water pipes withstand the cold?

The break in an old cast iron pipe gushed four feet below street level and the crew from American Water Company worked to find and isolate the crack by gnawing a gaping hole in the street and then pumping the floodwater out and into the gutter at Front and Myrtle in Scotch Plains.

It took just a few minutes for the hole to empty and reveal the culprit gushing at 600 gallons a minute.

The crew’s dilemma was how to fix the leak, fast and on the fly, without turning off all the main valves while residents in about 15 homes on Myrtle Avenue waited for service to be restored. Imagine doing all this on top of working in a freezing snow storm.

“We’ve been getting multiple calls on main breaks and our employees have been working around the clock to get the leaks fixed. This one came in, I believe, this morning,” said Mike Bormann, NJ American Water’s field operation superintendent.

Workers climbed into the hole, struggling to contain the geyser, getting sprayed with water. The air temperature hovered at 23 degrees.

American Water Company has about 8,500 miles of water main across New Jersey serving 2.7 million customers. When temperatures drop below freezing for extended periods, they can average about a dozen water main breaks a day.

“We’re not exactly sure what causes them, whether it’s the shift in the soil or the cold water, but it’s typical in this time of year. We typically get this,” said Bormann.

American Water’s not alone. Suez Water responded to 11 breaks and five leaks and Aqua America reported at least five breaks. New Jersey has some pipes that date back to the Civil War, an infrastructure so compromised New Jersey loses 130 million gallons of treated water every day, according to a recent legislative task force report.

“The crisis facing our drinking water infrastructure is a ticking time bomb,’’ noted task-force co-chair, Assemblyman John McKeon. “Much of this system is past its useful life and is breaking down due to decades of under investment.”

The task force recommended a $400 million bond issue to start fixing the problem.

Meanwhile, the American Water Company crew fixed the leak on Myrtle Street. They used a push broom to plug the flow and then slipped a repair clamp around the break and turned the screws.

“It keeps it from hitting everybody in the face, so you can clean out around it and get all the scale and everything off the water main to make the seal, the clamp actually seal perfectly around the pipe,” said Mike Franzoso, a foreman from NJ American Water.

The crew had worked until 2 a.m. They were back out Thursday morning in the storm and after filling in the hole and slapping on some temporary blacktop, they were headed to the next leak.