Aging pipes test Maine's water districts

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By approving referendum Question 5 on June 8, voters are giving the century-old water pipes beneath many of Maine’s streets a much-needed upgrade.

Laid along narrow trenches cut by hand out of the bedrock, the cast-iron pipes that carry water to homes are much older than most water customers realize. While the majority are in remarkably good shape, many pipes are leaky and clogged with mineral build-up.

And it’s not just in Maine. Infrastructure throughout the country’s oldest cities has lasted far longer and serves many more people than initially intended.

“Some of it has reached the end of its useful life, however we’re still using it,” said Trevor Hunt, superintendent of the Bath Water District. “Several pipes could be leaking at this moment and we don’t even know.”

Every year, water district managers like Hunt have to decide whether to continue patching leaks or replace an entire area, snarling traffic for months while excavation crews rip up city streets. Replacing a water main is far more expensive than plugging a leak, so water districts often wait on big projects until they can apply for low-interest loans through a state-administered revolving loan fund. Essentially, Question 5 resupplied this fund.

While bonds for infrastructure repairs tend to pass, the economy and amount of existing state debt had water district administrators like Chris Crovo, director of asset management for the Portland Water District, worried that this year might be different.

“We were concerned this year because times are tough,” Crovo said.

Even if the bond hadn’t passed, Crovo said the Portland Water District would have continued with its projects. “We would continue on because these projects are important, but we’d do it at a higher interest rate.”

David Kane, executive director of administration and treasurer for the Portland Water District, explained that the interest rate on a loan from the state revolving loan fund is “2 percent less than we would normally get.” Not paying the extra percentage points saves the Portland Water District roughly $150,000 a year, allowing the district to spend less money on interest and more on fixing infrastructure.

Low-interest loans clearly matter to water districts, but water consumers should also care about their water district’s finances. If a municipality were denied a loan from the revolving loan fund, of if Question 5 hadn’t passed, water rates would increase. And while Crovo couldn’t put a number on the hypothetical rate spike, he said that passing Question 5 “saved rate payers a considerable amount of money.”

Given the impact of a lower interest rate, it’s no surprise that so many water districts apply for loans from the state fund. It’s so competitive that people like Nancy Beardsley and Norm Lamie, who administer the fund at the Department of Health and Human Services in Augusta, have a list of criteria for eligibility. Water districts are assigned points according to their degree of need, with projects that address legal compliance, public health issues, water pollution and aging infrastructure receiving the most weight.

Water districts’ applications are bumped higher on the list if they can coordinate their repairs with other public utilities, like the replacement of a sewer or repaving a road.

On Washington Avenue in Portland, a project funded by Question 5, work has already started on the replacement of a water main from 1897. But work crews are taking advantage of the water main repairs to separate the sewer and storm water pipes, helping to avoid combined sewer overflows. Water main repairs are also scheduled for Falmouth.

“The worst-case scenario is a brand new road with an old water main beneath it,” said Bath Water District’s Hunt, who has been granted more than $409,000 from the revolving loan fund. Hunt plans to simultaneously repave and upgrade the water main beneath Center Street in Bath, an area he described as “troublesome.”

The city had attempted to repair the main four years ago, but couldn’t come up with the money for the project. According to Hunt, because Bath sits on top of a series of rocky ledges, excavation costs can be “significantly higher than other places.” Without money from the Question 5 bond, Hunt would be forced to accept a higher-interest loan on the open bond market.

While repairing Center Street’s water mains is a significant project, the length of pipe to be replaced pales in comparison to the miles of aging pipe still in the ground.

“The problem is, we have so much of the 100-year-old infrastructure and we can’t replace it all at the same time,” Hunt said. “At least 10 percent of our 60 miles of pipe is at the end of its useful life.”

Kane, of the Portland Water District, echoed the “tip of the iceberg” sentiment.

“The infrastructure is getting older and older and if you don’t keep up with it, eventually it’s going to fail,” he said. “It’s not a next year or two problem, but over the long term, if utilities don’t replace their infrastructure, it will pop up.”

Freelance journalist Emily Guerin lives in Harpswell.

Sidebar Elements

Workers install new water mains, storm water drains and sewers along Washington Avenue in Portland, a project funded by a state revolving loan fund.A construction site along Washington Avenue in Portland where the water main, sewer and stormwater systems are all being serviced, thanks to a loan from a state revolving loan fund.
A cross-section of an old water pipe shows turburculation, or mineral build up.