We are continuing our coverage of local water infrastructure stories, this week highlighting areas of Maine, Minnesota, and Washington.
Maine, which like nearly all states is seeing the effects of deteriorating, obsolete and aging pipes and other water infrastructure, has experienced its share of water main breaks in recent months. The Portland Water District provides a good example. The District, which pumps water to Portland and 10 surrounding communities – including Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, Scarborough, and South Portland – is by far Maine’s largest water utility. Roughly 20% of its pipes, including 1,000 miles of water mains, are more than 80 years old. As a result, the District experienced 21 water main breaks last month, including three in Portland and one each in South Portland and Gorham just last week. In Portland, traffic had to be detoured around a break at 93 Woodford Street. Pya Road was also closed between Clifton Street and Ocean Avenue. Dozens of customers were left without water service for hours, and the detours wrought havoc for area traffic. In February, a water main break flooded downtown Portland streets, forcing the closure of two schools for a day and resulting in an order to the city’s residents to use and consume only boiled water. And a break in Lewiston shut down part of Ferry Road for several hours last week.
Like so many other communities faced with aging mains and other infrastructure, the Portland Water District has been working to overhaul outdated pipes and plumbing within tight budgetary constraints. The utility has proposed to double capital spending in 2015 and increase water prices by 3.8 percent. A December report in The Forecaster estimated that the rate increase would add 70 cents to monthly water costs for a typical family of four, and the average monthly water bill for a commercial customer using 8,000 cubic feet of water would increase about $7, to more than $164. Capital spending, financed by public bonds, is expected to grow from $12.8 million in 2014 to $25 million in 2015, most of which is expected to pay for water main replacements and upgrades at Portland Water District’s wastewater treatment facility in the East End. But more funds are desperately needed: The Forecaster’s report states that the Portland area needs nearly $150 million worth of new mains over the next two decades.
All over Minnesota, aging water infrastructure is failing. Many drinking water systems, sanitary sewers and storm sewers throughout the state are approaching the end of their useful life, and cities from Robbinsdale to Minneapolis are experiencing burst pipes in record numbers. To cite just one example of the disruption caused by a ruptured pipe, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority offices in downtown Minneapolis had to be closed for a full day last year when a nearby water main broke, necessitating repairs and damage cleanup. A report by the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center in 2011 found that of the estimated 535,000 individual sewage treatment systems in Minnesota, about 39% are failing or pose an imminent threat to public health and safety. The report stated that over the next 20 years, more than $6 billion will be needed for improvements to drinking water systems, more than $4.5 billion for public wastewater systems, and more than $1.2 billion for individual wastewater systems throughout the State. Minnesota communities of all sizes are struggling to maintain a high quality standard of water when, as St. Paul Public Works Director Tom Eggum pointed out in a recent report, many of the state’s pipes are about 80 years old. Sewer systems throughout the State are vulnerable to extreme rain when water leaks into pipes or is funneled there through basement sump pumps. Heavy rains last June, for example, caused sewage overflows at a record 126 treatment plants around Minnesota, some of which closed beaches on Lake Minnetonka. One north Minnesota pilot project is attempting to address this problem. Large stormwater tanks were installed beneath what once was a street 5 and ½ blocks long but is now a pedestrian and bicycle path. So far, the system has worked but it was very expensive to install – approximately $6 million according to one city official.
And the State of Washington is suffering as well. Late last year, for example, a water main break damaged a major Tacoma intersection. The break in a 16-inch pipe left the city’s largest water customer, the RockTenn paper mill, out of service until repairs were completed. An estimated 20,000 gallons of water gushed from the main every minute for several hours, leaving a gaping hole in the street, at E. Portland Ave. and E. 11st Street. Employees at roughly a dozen nearby businesses were advised to boil drinking water as a result. Just about a month later, a leaking pipe at 725 East 25th near the Tacoma Dome flooded roads, forcing the temporary shutoff of water in the surrounding area. The Seattle area routinely endures the hardship of water main breaks as well. On New Year’s Eve, for example, a break in West Seattle caused Admiral Way to ice over; traffic had to be reduced to one lane in each direction. And just a couple of weeks ago, a broken 24-inch water main flooded at least six homes in the Ravenna neighborhood at NE 80th Street and 24th Ave NE in north Seattle.