No easy fix to city water mains crisis

The math is easy.

With 4,000 miles of underground water pipe and a 100-year expected lifespan for that pipe, the city has to replace about 40 miles of pipe every year.

But if the math is simple, everything else-the planning, the budgeting, the actual digging up, and replacing-is hard.

"In the past, in essence, we've replaced less than five miles per year," Rudolph Chow, head of the Bureau of Water and Waste Water, told Dan Rodricks on his Friday, Nov. 16 radio show.

Big water mains have been breaking, flooding streets and causing havoc with frightening regularity. On Nov. 7, a 60-inch main blew on Charles Street, shutting down North Avenue with a flood that could float kayaks. Five days later, a 30-inch main let go less than a mile away, at Madison Street and Guilford Avenue, diverting traffic and forcing a shut-off of 19 Mount Vernon properties. Later that same day, a 16-incher broke at Philadelphia Road and Rossville Boulevard. Last summer, there were other big breaks, including a July show-stopper on Light Street that closed off two downtown blocks for a month.

The city is ramping up its spending over the next few years to about $60 million per year to replace about 40 miles of water main each year by 2017-eight times the replacement rate these days. From then on, that replacement schedule will continue in perpetuity, Chow says: the math demands no less. Increases to the city's water and sewer fee could double the typical bill by 2018, from the current $500 per year to $1,000.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has asked for federal help, though it remains to be seen if any will be forthcoming.

The massive job will take planning and manpower, says DPW spokesperson Kurt Kocher. "All this is still in process. You're looking at reconfiguring the crews for more efficiency." He says he is unsure whether the city will hire more people to do the work or use contractors, or both. "The action now is at engineering level," he says.

The city's waterworks are not just an urban matter. Although the downtown pipes are among the region's oldest, at 75 to 100 years old, Baltimore County's water system is completely under the control of the city's Department of Water and Wastewater, and new county water mains must receive City Council approval. In addition, Howard County is largely dependent upon two huge water mains running from the city's system. While attention focused last summer on a 20-inch main break that closed two blocks of Light Street downtown, Howard County residents lived under water restrictions while a 54-inch main running from the city was shut down for repair.

Baltimore City suffers 1,000 water main breaks each year, officials say. They add that all old Eastern Seaboard cities are in the same boat. Yet a spokesperson for Boston's waterworks-the same size as Baltimore, older and further north-told City Paper that that city only sees about 30 main breaks per year. That's about one-thirtieth Baltimore's rate.

As Chow told Rodricks' radio audience: "In the past, perhaps we weren't allocating enough money toward replacement."

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