ELK RIVER, MN. – March 6, 2009 (Star News) -- Pipes are freezing and bursting in vacant, foreclosed homes in Elk River, damaging the homes and wasting millions of gallons of water.

Vance Zehringer, interim general manager of Elk River Municipal Utilities (ERMU), said he is aware of more than 10 homes in Elk River that have sustained water damage due to frozen pipes. He figures there will be a total of 15–20 damaged homes in Elk River this winter by the time they assess everything.

John Dietz, a member of the Elk River Utilities Commission, said about 20 million gallons of water have been lost to frozen and broken water pipes in homes in Elk River in recent months.

In one home alone, 1.4 million gallons of water worth $5,000 were lost before the water was shut off.

The Elk River City Council took steps to address the problem Monday, March 2, voting 5-0 to amend a city ordinance dealing with shutting off city water.

“This is something that’s desperately needed,” said Jerry Gumphrey, a city council member who also sits on the utilities commission.

City Attorney Peter Beck said the issue initially stemmed from water pipes bursting in vacant homes and ERMU’s concern about its authority to turn off water to those homes. The revamped ordinance addresses that issue.

“Now with this new ordinance we have legal right to do what we need to do to in order to save those homes (from water damage),” Zehringer said.

The new ordinance also gives ERMU the right to recover costs associated with shut-offs. That includes charging the property for lost water, such as in cases where water runs unchecked before being shut off.

The new ordinance is part of the city’s three-pronged strategy to deal with the foreclosure crisis. More than 500 homes in Elk River have gone through foreclosure since 2006.