By Marit Gookin
For two months this winter, Lander resident John Burrows was forced to haul water from neighbors after frozen pipes rendered his water service inoperable. He’s one of countless Fremont County residents who’ve struggled to deal with a winter like no other.
“I’m not sure I know anyone who doesn’t have a story to share about how this winter has impacted them,” said Burrows. “In one way or another this winter has been really rough for most people I know … between ice damming, frozen pipes, bad slips on ice, and/or auto accidents.”
This winter has been a hard one for many Fremont County residents, with deep snow and cold temperatures leading to frozen pipes, large potholes, and many days stuck indoors. The state of Wyoming is no stranger to harsh winters, but an exceptionally cold winter such as this one – coming on the heels of two relatively mild winters, no less – has proved to be a particular challenge. While the weather has plagued many – including local governments forced to deal with frozen water mains, neverending snow plow needs, and now, gaping potholes, it’s been a boon for some businesses, especially plumbers.
Cory Clouser of City Plumbing and Heating in Lander said that his business received almost 100 phone calls in a single day when the temperatures reached -50°F this winter. “We kept up with the workload pretty well,” he said, but, “it was a lot.”
Last winter, City Plumbing dealt with 10-12 cases of thawing out frozen underground water lines all season; this winter, Clouser reported that they have had close to 300 to date.
“The biggest thing is the frost,” Clouser explained. In a typical year, the ground in Lander will be frozen down to about four feet below the surface; this year, he observed that the frost reached six to seven feet down in places. According to Lander Assistant Mayor Rajean Strube-Fossen, many Lander water lines are installed six and a half feet belowground, which means that most years these lines have a comfortable two-foot buffer between the pipes and the frost. This year was different.
“It’s as deep as I can remember frost levels being,” commented Lander Public Works Director Lance Hopkin.
While the winter weather has led to an increase in business for some, it had a different effect on others.
“When the weather was really bad, I almost might as well not have been here,” said Heather Hossack of Heritage Quilts and Fabric Shoppe. While the slower traffic on cold, snowy days was somewhat expected for her Riverton location, she reported that even the store’s Pinedale location saw fewer customers on days when the weather was bad.
Roads and vehicles have also been impacted by the extreme weather conditions, as well as the melting and freezing. Service Manager Todd Smith at Fremont Motors in Lander and Rob Hinkle of Extra Care Auto in Riverton both said that while they didn’t feel that they had seen significantly more customers due to the weather this winter, it has definitely impacted what kinds of problems people were coming in with. Skid plates hanging down in need of removal and replacing, batteries dead due to cold temperatures, and suspension work related to rough roads have been common issues with vehicles this winter.
“February has always been our busiest month,” observed Hinkle, and it was again this year.
Gary Michaud of Wind River Transportation Authority (WRTA) echoed Hossack’s sentiment that many people don’t go out if they can avoid it when it’s particularly cold outside. That factor makes it difficult to determine whether WRTA saw any increases in ridership due to people deciding against driving themselves when the road conditions were bad, but Michaud encouraged people to do so.
“We have professionally trained drivers who work really hard to do a good job,” Michaud said. Taking the bus reduces the number of vehicles on the roads, and between that and the drivers’ training, buses can help people travel more safely in the winter.
Every time the city has to put a leak block on a pipe for a small leak, it has to spend $5,000 to $10,000, explained Lance Hopkin. Larger repairs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and may require the assistance of a contractor. Some of Lander’s water lines are 50-100 years old, and in many cases Hopkin said it would make more long-term sense to replace the old pipes with modern PVC pipes in order to avoid having the same issues again in the future. Doing so will cost more upfront, but will be better for the city’s water infrastructure over time.
While the winter has been a struggle for many, it also saw communities drawing together to support each other.
“It’s definitely brought me closer to my neighbors,” Burrows said, explaining that while his pipes were frozen he had a circuit he would do to various neighbors’ houses to shower and fill up on water. “There has been a lot of helping one another out.”