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The Price of Ignoring Water Infrastructure

Cluster of Valves
Image by urbanworkbench via Flickr

We’ve been living on borrowed time when it comes to infrastructure, not just the communities in the Kootenays, but towns and cities of all sizes across North America. From what I can tell, more than half of the pipe in the ground in this part of the world is older than me, which means that it should probably be scheduled for replacement in the next 15 to 20 years – that’s if it doesn’t fail first.

The reality is that the age of the pipe is not the only indicator for failure, in fact in testimony on behalf of the National League of Cities before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (March 2001), Bruce Tobey, then-mayor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, stated that a primary reason for the escalation in water main breaks is “the simultaneous expiration of the useful life of water infrastructure installed at different times.” He elaborated by saying, “ … the newer the infrastructure, the more likely it is to be deteriorating. Different materials, with increasingly shorter useful lives, leave us in the position where 100 years’ worth of infrastructure is being exhausted all at once.”

In Rossland, where I work as the City Engineer, we’ve had several large watermain breaks this year, all on lines made of asbestos cement pipe, which around here was installed between about 1940 and 1980, making the youngest of this pipe 30 years old. Some utilities reported increased breakage frequency over time. For instance, during the ten-year period from 1995 to 2004, the City of Regina had an average AC pipe breakage of 0.27 breaks/year/km, which was more than double the average rate of 0.13 breaks/year/km in the previous 10-year period from 1985 to 1994 – via pdf NRCC, and the cost of repairing these breaks is not getting any cheaper.

A lot of people have expressed concern over issues such as drought preparedness, watershed protection and water conservation, from a sustainability perspective, in terms of the potential cost of system failure (whether environmental, social or economic), I think you would find that infrastructure management would rank high on the list of priorities for any municipality. When a small municipality has three breaks in a month, each costing thousands of dollars to fix, and causing an unscheduled water shut down for sometimes hundreds of residents and businesses, you start to get a picture of how bad the problem could be.

Preparing for the Future

I’ve been working on an Infrastructure Plan, using the City’s GIS data as a base, including pipe material, age, and size as basic data, and where available date of installation. Additionally, we have inspected all of the sewer and stormwater manholes and catchbasins and have completed a Road Condition Assessment. Turning all of this data into information is the task we now face, as we build a priority matrix and assess the cost of each section of road or utility corridor that needs to be upgraded in the municipality.

Just this week Victoria BC’s municipal Council was presented with a report on the health of their infrastructure

Victoria can’t afford to ignore its growing infrastructure deficit, estimated to exceed $467 million, city councillors were told Thursday.

“This is a ticking time-bomb,” Coun. Lynn Hunter said after being updated on the extent of the issue Thursday.

The city engineering department manages $1.7 billion in infrastructure that includes sewer and water lines, 70 buildings, streetlights, roads and sidewalks — and much of it has reached or exceeded its life design, David McAllister, manager of assets and infrastructure, told councillors.

While the city budgeted $10.8 million for infrastructure maintenance and replacement this year, the actual amount needed is twice that, or $21.5 million, in order to maintain and repair systems and eliminate the deficits over the next 20 years.

Particularly stressed are the city’s water lines and storm and sanitary sewer systems, McAllister said.

Infrastructure backlog tops $467 million, Victoria council told — Times Colonist

But planning only works if there is a funding mechanism available to pay for the replacement of the infrastructure – and in many cases, capital replacement programs and even maintenance are woefully underfunded and there is little chance o support for tax increases.  Many municipalities have waited for grant funding to assist in large capital costs, but it seems unlikely that this funding source will be as robust as it has been in the past decade.

Back to Basic Services?

Overall, the pricetag of undertaking widespread replacement programs is high, and this raises the question of compliance with drinking water standards and fireflow requirements as the level of basic service. Similar to the arguments around whether roads should be depaved to save long term maintenance and capital costs, I can foresee that we will be having discussions around the cost of providing “safe drinking water” for general community uses including washing cars and flushing toilets.

A community in the states is going through a water utility bankruptcy, forcing many residents to consider installing waells to reduce their reliance on unsustainable utility structures.

Jerome Ruzicka is one of 180 homeowners who are worried the water could stop flowing in two weeks. Their local water company, Assabet, has been drowning in debt for years and plans to file for bankruptcy on Sept 28. Its state of the art treatment plant will close its doors for good.

The company may shut off the water supply months before homeowners find the cash to sink a well.So far, about 60 homeowners have requested permits to sink a well. Thirty homeowners are in the process of having wells drilled. The average cost to drill a well is $10,000.

The financial surprise came several months after Assabet raised rates, slamming customers with an $850 dollar yearly bump in their water bills.The company’s attorney said it was forced to raise rates to pay for the new plant. Tim McGee said that Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection ordered Assabet to build the plant because of contamination issues.

Town Water Woes Coming To Boiling Point – WCVBTV Boston

I’m not sure what the “contamination issues” were, but the level of treatment is obviously unsustainable for this community, and the cost of providing potable water is too high for this community to adapt to. Rather than continually building bigger and better, at some point we need to be able to reasonably say, “Stop! – What are our options here.” Perhaps the option of reducing the complexity of the service needs to be addressed before accepting government grants or borrowing money to buy the latest technology.

Fragility

I hope I’ve giving a different perspective of the water supply system today from that which I expect most people hold –  that you turn on the tap and the water comes out 24/7 365 days a year. The systems that we rely upon are built to be robust, but certain factors, including the condition of parts of the infrastructure, (and the inherent cost of addressing these problems) make the health of the entire system a concern that needs to be addressed.

Comments?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

4 thoughts on “The Price of Ignoring Water Infrastructure

  1. Timely article Mike. Being a contractor I often think about our degrading infrastructure in the area we live. The recent gas main break in San Bruno, California just up the road from where we currently live, helped to inform folks of the challenge we are facing regarding the water, sewer and gas delivery systems currently in place, each of which is reaching the end of their lifespans.

    I enjoy your writings and have recently picked up your book recommendation, Plan C, which has reminded where things are headed with regards to peak oil and our environment. Last night on a walk, my wife and I were talking a bit about the book and how feasible it might be to be at least partially off the grid when building out our property in Rossland. This discussion in part led to the question of what the regulations are in Rossland for drilling a well and if that is even a feasible option. Maybe you know, of course in a general sense, the answer to this question.

    Thanks again for gettin’ me thinking!

  2. I think it is about time we seriously think about where we are spending the money that we “give” to the people who run our cities etc.

    In CastlegarI would like to see the millions of dollars that are going to be spent on the utilities for the Casino, and the proposed millions of dollars in upgrades for the Community Complex spent on the basic stuff that we need.

    Not much fun having white elephants around when the water isn’t running, or running too much when storm sewers overflow and ruin homes and roads.
    Maybe insurance dows cover some of the cost, but the premiums will rise as well.

    Every time something is added to the City such public buildings, roads, landscaping etc., it has to be maintained and the maintenance goes on for ever..

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