600 water main breaks are enough

Dave Kleckner, who during his 36-year career in the Port water department has done just about every job at the utility, including running it, retires

PORT WASHINGTON WATER SUPT. Dave Kleckner retired Monday after almost 37 years with the utility. Kleckner took a break before he left to pose for a picture in the water filtration plant’s pump room, where the green pipes in the foreground bring in water from Lake Michigan while the blue ones in the background send clean water into the city’s water mains and towers. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Dave Kleckner has done virtually every job at the Port Washington water utility — including sweeping the floors.

“As a plant operator, your job included cleaning,” Kleckner said.

He estimated that through the years he has responded to more than 600 water main breaks, many of which occurred in the frigid cold in the middle of the night. 

“That’s the one thing I’m not going to miss, getting a call at two in the morning when it’s 10 below outside to go out whether it’s for a water main break or to plow,” he said as he prepared for his last day at work on Monday, Jan. 14.

“When the phone would ring, generally I was out the door in 10 minutes. My family would joke, ‘Dad’s running out to deliver a baby.’”

Kleckner retired Tuesday after 36-1/2 years with the utility, the last two as the superintendent.

He was lauded at the Common Council meeting as Mayor Marty Becker presented him with a proclamation.

“He is one heck of a city worker, dedicated,” Becker said. “I’ve seen him on the streets, all times of day, all kinds of weather. He plows in every snowstorm. He has an unfailing work ethic and is a conscientious worker.”

Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven echoed those thoughts, saying Kleckner was “the kind of guy you never had to worry about taking care of the water utility. He was exceptionally detail oriented, incredibly hard working and unfailingly dedicated to the city.”

But Kleckner didn’t start his career at the utility. He was a cabinet maker at Goebel Woodwork Inc. But in the early 1980s, the housing market was terrible and Kleckner went looking for a new job.

A city job with a steady paycheck, pension and good benefits looked appealing to a man with a young family, so Kleckner applied for a job at the water utility.

“I came in with a lot of ambition and didn’t know a lot,” he said with a laugh. But Supt. Ed Sauer hired him, and Kleckner learned the job from the bottom up.

He started as a plant operator, later working on the outside crew, taking care of the water system infrastructure. He worked on the meter staff and was a relief operator before becoming an operations foreman, a post he held for about 15 years before succeeding former Supt. Dave Ewig in 2016.

“I was lucky,” Kleckner said. “I worked a lot with Dave, and that prepared me to slide right in.”

Facts about the water plant roll off Kleckner’s tongue — the water filtration plant was built in 1947 when the city fathers grew tired of complaints about the dirty water pumped from the lake. In the late 1960s, expecting that the city would continue its explosive growth, the Common Council added a second plant to the building, but the growth never came.

Today, the plant runs each of the plants on alternate days with both operating on the occasional days of high demand.

The plant has a capacity of about four million gallons of water but produces 1.2 million gallons of water a day. We Energies uses about 20% of that total.

“There are days we pump the same amount we did when I started,” Kleckner said, noting while the city has experienced significant growth through the decades, it is residential growth, not industrial.

“We have less industry and more residents, and most of the homes have water-saving devices installed,” he said.

The city has about 20 water main breaks annually, Kleckner said, noting that last year there were only 11.

“It’s a challenge once in a while,” he said.

Years ago, he recalled, crews used to build fires where they thought the break had occurred in order to thaw the frozen ground so they could fix the breaks.
“Hopefully, by the next day it would be soft enough to work,” he said. “And hopefully you were in the right place.”

Today, electronic equipment makes it easier to pinpoint the breaks and, if needed, the crew can use a hydraulic hammer to cut through frozen ground to fix the break. 

In the past, Kleckner said, most breaks were caused by the freeze-thaw cycle, as the ground jostled the underground pipes, but today corroding pipes cause most of the problems.

“That’s why we’ve been replacing so much main,” he said, noting this work is generally done in conjunction with street reconstruction projects.

Kleckner is proud of the quality of water produced by the plant, saying it is safe, tasty and doesn’t require softening.

One of the biggest challenges today is preventing lead from getting into the water, he said. Water leaving the treatment plant doesn’t contain lead, but lead can leach out of the service pipes leading from the water main into homes.

To help prevent this, he said, the city adds a chemical to the water that coats the inside of the service pipes to help prevent the lead from leaching out.

Residents can further protect themselves by running the water for a few minutes first thing each day to minimize potential exposure, he said. It takes about six hours for lead to leach into the water..

Kleckner said the most remarkable incident he’s encountered was in 2017 when a vehicle hit a hydrant in the industrial park, fracturing the lateral and causing a significant drop in water pressure. The utility lost about 400,000 gallons of water that day.

“We’ve never had a situation like that before,” Kleckner said, noting he got the call when he was about halfway home. The drop in pressure caused a situation in which bacteria could have entered the pipes, forcing the city to impose a voluntary boil order.

That incident demonstrates Kleckner’s abilities, Vanden Noven said.

“Dave immediately sprang into action,” he said. “He contacted customers and the Department of Natural Resources and had the situation under control within an hour.

“That was a one-of-a-kind incident. It’s not the type of emergency you train for, and Dave handled it flawlessly.”

As he looked back on his career, Kleckner noted that he’s been fortunate to have a good crew to work with through the years.

“I’m fortunate to have always worked with a good group of guys,” he said. 

“Young people aren’t getting into the field,” he added. “Nobody wants to get called out in the middle of the night when it’s cold. You’re on call 24/7, 365, whether it’s a holiday or not.”

Now, he’s looking forward to spending time with his wife Suzanne, their children Julie Gerds and son Kurt and their five grandchildren. He’s also got woodworking jobs and travel on his agenda.

“It’s just time,” Kleckner said.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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