When the water mains break

Local businesses demand compensation for thousands of dollars in damages

This restaurant on Ellice Avenue was closed for over three months as a result of the damage a broken water main caused in 2004. Laura Murdoch

Forget about Winnipeg’s roads. Many local businesses are now calling for the city to take a closer look underground.

Water mains – large underground pipes that deliver water to a resident’s service pipe – burst up to 700 times a year. That’s about two breaks a day in Winnipeg.

The breaks are caused by soil erosion underground and can flood whole streets and adjacent residences. Several Winnipeg restaurants have been forced to close entirely or have paid thousands in renovations because of the breaks.

Basil’s, a 32-year-old Osborne Village restaurant, had its interior severely damaged by a break in February 2008.

“Suddenly a huge explosion of water started gushing out of Osborne Street and seeping two feet high out of Basil’s doors,” recalled Ken Morissette, a bartender at Billabong, another Osborne Street restaurant.

“The city’s negligence caused that break and [the owner] wasn’t compensated in any way.”

In a 2008 report by the CBC, owner Basil Lagopoulos estimated damages at close to $1 million. He said the city should be held responsible.

The city, however, is not liable for damages. According to the City of Winnipeg Charter Act, it has no obligation to compensate for damages caused by water main breaks or any other malfunction of city infrastructure, unless damages are determined to be caused by the city’s negligence.

“Water main breaks are deemed to be an act of God,” said Bill Clement, city councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo. “There is no way to predict them.”

Spokespeople from the city’s water and waste department maintain that water main breaks are unpredictable and regular repairs to them are permanent. Others remain skeptical, however.

“The fix is temporary because we [the city] simply don’t have the funds to completely renew the pipes,” said Harry Lazarenko, city councillor for the Mynarski Ward. “They break because of water mains built in the 1920s.”

Of Winnipeg’s 2,466 km of water mains, approximately 250 km were installed before 1920. Most of these pipes are in older areas of the inner city or the south of Winnipeg.

While Basil’s remains closed for renovations, it isn’t the first inner-city or downtown restaurant to be hit by a water main break.

Sorrento’s Pizza was damaged by a break in 2004 that closed the Ellice Avenue restaurant for over three months. The break flooded the whole basement and part of the dining room. Damages were only partially covered by owner Brigida D’Ottavio’s insurance, costing her an estimated $60-70,000 in renovations.

“We got our business back eventually, but it did take a while,” said D’Ottavio.

A few doors down, Homer’s, another Ellice Avenue restaurant, was hit by the same break. Owner George Katsabanis was forced to close his doors for three months, with damages costing $50-60,000.

“No one from the city paid for the damage, and no one approached me about the damage,” he said, adding that no one seems to be accountable for any of the breaks or the damages from them.

Michelle Bailey, a communications officer from the City of Winnipeg speaking on behalf of the water and waste department, admitted inner-city pipes are more prone to rupture, but added that water mains with the largest frequency of breaks are targeted for complete replacement.

The city spends $4 million on water main repairs in a typical year. An average repair costs $4,000.

Published in Volume 64, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 28, 2010)

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