Communities across the country are grappling with aging infrastructure and limited funding to repair or replace critical water, road and utility lines. In the first part of our seven-day series on infrastructure, WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at how two communities are working to upgrade antiquated water systems.
When Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger first ran for office six years ago, Vermont’s largest city’s infrastructure was one of his primary issues. “I think most people don't realize how much of the job of local government is focused on taking care of our streets and our sidewalks and our parks, the infrastructure you can't see: the water lines and sewer lines and storm water, infrastructure that's underground and in the case of Burlington of course taking care of the electrical system as well. It is a huge array of assets that the city is responsible for building and maintaining and it's a big job. It's one that I think we have historically done a pretty good job of here in Burlington. But it's also been clear to me I think yeah going back to six years ago that there were areas that we had some systematic deficiencies and some chronic underfunding of that we need to do something about. It's exciting right now to have the backing of the voters to implement one of the largest infrastructure plans in the in the city's history over the next five years.”
In November 2016, Burlington voters approved a 10-year, $50 million capital infrastructure plan. It followed a two-year infrastructure assessment. The Infrastructure Plan for a Sustainable City states that: “Water main breaks, deteriorated sidewalks, old fire trucks, and neglected parks are not just inconveniences – they …hinder economic development.” The plan estimated that 42 percent of the city’s water mains are at least 75 years-old and concluded that the entire water system from distribution to storage needed attention. It places an emphasis on preventative maintenance. Mayor Weinberger believes the city’s water infrastructure may benefit most from that strategy. “Our policy prior to the last few years was we did not replace water lines until they broke. And a lot of the waterline replacement work we've had to do in the past has happened in you know in emergency conditions in the middle of the winter. It also tends to happen in the winter immediately after the resurfacing of the street above it because that vibration often weakened the lines underneath and then you’d see them break the following winter. So we now have these water lines either being relined or open trench replaced in the season before the paving takes place. And we think over time that's going to mean that these breakages come down and it will be a much less expensive way by planning for it and doing it proactively.”
The mayor is excited that the city is using new technology to repair and refurbish pipes. “When we replace a water line using this relining technology where we essentially dig in just a couple places and then pull this sort-of tube sock almost, this long tube sock, through the pipe and then blow it up and essentially you create a new pipe inside of the existing pipe. When we replace lines that way the cost per mile it's like a third to half of the cost of when we dig the whole line up and replace it all. And so when we can take this proactive approach and use this different technology in appropriate places it really allows us to with the same amounts of money replace many more miles of water lines.”
A few blocks from city hall, a large pit gapes along St. Paul Street near the corner of King Street, exposing underground water pipes. Megan Moir, Assistant Department of Public Works, is Director in Charge Of Water Resources. She says they used a risk-based process to determine the priority for streets and water lines. “How we chose the streets that would receive this reinvestment was actually based on break history. So we looked at the upcoming paving program plan and tried to pick the streets that we were most worried about, that had the highest risk, had the highest likelihood of failure based on their break history, based on the age, based on the pipe material as well as potential consequence of failure. So when we had to pick between a street that maybe didn't have as much traffic flow and one that did we would pick the one that had the most traffic flow because that would be the worst when it breaks.”
Pat Bradley: “We're standing here and there are very large holes in the pavement about twenty feet apart. What's going on?”
Moir: “With the relining process unlike when we reline sewer pipes and we have manholes to access the pipe with water main relining you do actually have to dig at the valves and create an access point so that the relining process can occur.”
Bradley: “What happens when a worker goes down in there to reline the pipe?”
Moir: “The general process with the pipe relining is putting everybody on bypass water. Then the company that we're working with goes through and does high pressure jetting in order to clean out the inside of the pipe. One of the things about old pipes, and this is completely normal and natural, is that they form tuberculation inside the pipe which is like a rust. So the first step is to reestablish the full capacity of the pipe by going through and cleaning it. After that they actually put a video robot inside to look at the condition of the pipe, make sure there's no other defects that we weren't aware about that are going to cause trouble during the lining. After that they actually do the water main relining. It's a fiberglass reinforced felt that gets pushed in and kind of unravels itself inside the pipe, adheres to the inside of the pipe and then that whole thing is steam cured and essentially forms a fully rigid new pipe inside the old pipe. After that a robot comes through. We do another inspection with the video to make sure there's no issues and then the pipe is pressure tested and disinfected and then everybody's put back on the pipe. So it's really easy and quick.”
There are a variety of different types of pipes and the typical life span is 50 to 75 years. Forty-two percent of Burlington’s are older than 75 years and 25 percent are more than a century old. Department of Public Works Director Chapin Spencer calculates that there are more than 110 miles of water pipes in the city. “The numbers add up quickly. When you realize 110 miles of water main, between combined sewer and sanitary sewer having over 100 miles. We have 95 miles of streets. We have 130 miles of sidewalk. We have 300 city vehicles to maintain. It is a massive operation to continue to provide 24-7 service to the public. But one of the things at Public Works that we value the most is when the public gets up in the morning turns on the faucet, flushes the toilet, gets to work, all without having to think we have done our job.”
Meanwhile, across Lake Champlain, the Town of Plattsburgh, New York is upgrading its aboveground water delivery system and storage tanks. Town of Plattsburgh Director of Water and Wastewater Scott Stoddard is at the town’s pump house. This is the beginning of the system that distributes water to approximately 15,000 users across 133 miles of water mains.
“This is what we call the water plant or the water treatment plant. So we’ve pumped the water out of subsurface wells. Then it comes to this location and gets chlorine and fluoride added and then we basically either pump up to storage tanks or it goes out to meet demands for the day in the system.”
Bradley: “So when you talk about this is coming out of a well, is this the same sort of well that like a homeowner would drill?”
Stoddard: “It is similar but a larger capacity. Our well puts out about 800 –
860 gallons per minute. You know it's about 400 feet deep where a typical home well wouldn't probably be as large or that capacity.”
Bradley: “What's the machinery in this other room?”
Stoddard: “Over here we have three booster pumps which these are essentially pressurizing the system. We have five million gallons of storage that sits at a high point for elevation purposes to gravity feed the entire system.”
The town has implemented a capital plan and is investing between $18 and $24 million to refurbish or replace water storage tanks. Town Supervisor Michael Cashman and Stoddard drive up to the largest of them, a tank farm Cashman calls the heart of the system.
Cashman: “This is the main production for you know the lifeblood of our water system.”
Bradley: “How many tanks are here?”
Stoddard: “Four tanks totaling about five million gallons. We've acquired an additional acre here with the plans to put in another two million gallon storage tank and then eventually will retire these two smaller ones. Based on the investment needed in these tanks to get them back up to speed and the cost for a new tank we shifted to the new tank and that will also allow us in the future to better be able to take down these tanks for maintenance purposes and not compromise capacity to the entire system.”
The tanks are visibly worn with peeling paint. Cashman notes some are in better shape than others, including the smaller tanks across the town. “When I said that we needed to prioritize our tanks you don't want to get to a situation where there's a critical failure. We're not in that situation now nor will we be. But that's why we're taking proactive steps instead of reactive steps.”
Bradley: “It looks like there was on this tank white paint that is peeling to a red or a brownish black. Is that indicating rust or what does that indicate?”
Stoddard: “That bottom layer is the initial primer on the tank. Which is not ideal that we’re down to primer but that's why we’re in this maintenance program and being steel tanks really you know we haven't had any compromise of the actual steel structures yet so really it is a coating effort. But essentially if you were to put more material on this it just wouldn’t stick. It would come back off. So you've got to blast it down to bare steel by sandblasting and that's both interior and exterior. And then to do the tank you can't have it full of water. So you have to drain it. And that's really one of the biggest logistical issues is that you know hey while we're doing this we need to take two million gallons out of service.”
Cashman says you can’t just spray paint these tanks. “It's actually hand rolled on the tanks which is really quite fascinating to watch. And as we go through the system right now we've successfully completed the one out on Cumberland Head and that was a tank that had 700,000 gallons of water so that project is complete. We're now on to the Bluff Point or the Clinton Community College tank and then the next one up from there is Cadyville. So we're moving pretty rapidly through them.”
Back in Burlington, Mayor Miro Weinberger says continued attention to all aspects of infrastructure is crucial. “Our infrastructure essentially establishes the foundation that our economic life is built on top of. You need streets and sidewalks to conduct commerce. So it's really clear to me that a high quality of life is very much intermingled with our economic development future.”
The Burlington Department of Public Works planned to complete relining or replacing about 4 miles of underground water pipes during the first fiscal year of the capital infrastructure plan. Over the course of the five-year plan, 10 to 12 miles will be refurbished.
The Town of Plattsburgh’s multi-year Capital Water Plan includes nearly 20 water, sewer and pump station restoration projects.