Continuing our focus on local water infrastructure news from around the country, the following stories illustrate the impact of water infrastructure failures on peoples’ lives, and how initiatives to fund modernized infrastructure – at both the local and federal levels – can address the problem.
The Salt Lake City area has experienced more than its share of hardship from water infrastructure failures in recent months. The roughly 1,300 miles of piping under the city is some of the oldest in the entire state. As a result, there are about 350 water main breaks on average in Salt Lake City each year, according to city data.
During the last five months there have been at least four major breaks on central roadways, stretching from Brigham City to Sandy. To cite just a few examples, on February 19, a water main break near 1000 North and 1200 West caused the all-day closure of an intersection and forced the shutoff of water to several homes. The break caused water to flow freely onto the road for almost an hour, raising the surface of a 12-foot-by-12-foot section of road in the center of the intersection by about eight inches. Commuters were forced to avoid the area and bus routes were detoured for most of the day. On February 16, a ruptured water main break under Main Street in Salt Lake City sent thousands of gallons of water rushing like a river down the thoroughfare, forcing the closure of Main Street for most of the day. Representatives of the Salt Lake City Public Works Department said aging parts of the infrastructure below ground were likely to blame – the line that burst under Main Street is nearly 100 years old. And last October, water ran like a river through streets of Salt Lake City overnight after a water main broke near Foothill Drive at 1700 South and sent an estimated 2.5 million gallons of water flowing downhill. The rushing water impacted several homes and caused substantial damage to Montessori Community School and some nearby businesses, and the intersection at 1700 South and Foothill Drive had to be closed through the weekend for repairs.
West Virginians, particularly in the mountainous southern part of the state in which many current water systems were installed in the early 1900s, routinely face adversity as a result of failing water infrastructure. Last week alone saw numerous instances in which residents of southern West Virginia were advised not to use or consume water before boiling as a result of possible contamination from broken water mains. One such break, for example, on Adams Avenue in Huntington, affected 40 residences from 22nd Street West to 24th Street West, Flora Court, and 23rd Street West. The same occurred in Oceana, Beckley, and St. Albans last week. These “boil water advisories” are unfortunately commonplace in this region, as recently reported by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Residents of Keystone in McDowell County, for example, have been on an advisory since 2010. The town’s neighboring city, Northfork, has been on a boil water advisory since 2013. Fortunately, the region has been able to make some progress in funding projects to address the problem. The Elkhorn Water Project, for example, is a $25 million, four-phase project aimed at helping residents of the Elkhorn/Northfork area; the project is scheduled to begin in June. Phase 1 will replace water lines from Maybeury, Elkorn and Switchback to the edge of Upland. The $8 million cost of phase 1 is being funded with $6 million in USDA Rural Development Grants and $2 million in loans. Planners are actively working on obtaining similar funding for the other phases.
Nevada has also struggled with water infrastructure failures. To cite just one example, last summer a large water main break forced the closure of several buildings at the University of Nevada’s Reno campus. The break caused power outages, data services disruption, and air cooling and water services outages that lasted more than two days; it also necessitated expensive repairs and cleanup of mud and water in the affected buildings. Classes had to be rescheduled or relocated.
But Nevada does offer an example in which the federal government is playing a key role in addressing the severe under-funding of water infrastructure. In October, the EPA announced that it was committing $19.4 million in funding for statewide improvement in local water infrastructure and the reduction of water pollution. As the EPA’s representative said when announcing the funding commitment, these investments at the federal level help local communities meet basic needs for clean, safe drinking water and proper wastewater treatment. Nevada will use the funds to provide low-cost loans for safe drinking water projects and wastewater infrastructure improvements. Specifically, the state anticipates allocating a portion of this year’s funds for potential projects such as the replacement of aging sewer lines in Nye County, and the upgrade of McDermitt’s drinking water system to reduce the level of naturally-occurring arsenic and meet the health standards for water supplies. Recent projects using State Revolving Fund loans include the installation of two new wells in Tonopah to meet the health standards for arsenic. The town’s new wells are at a higher elevation which saved money and improved energy efficiency. In Gerlach, population 200, funds were used to replace aging sewer pipes, preventing the recent influx of thousands of visitors attending the Burning Man festival from overwhelming the wastewater treatment system. These are excellent examples of how federal funding for clean water and drinking water can be used for a variety of critically needed water projects.