State Report Finds Massachusetts Municpalities Face Big Expense For Water, Sewer Repairs

Feb 6, 2017

Credit WAMC

A recent report puts a price tag on repairs required to local water systems in Massachusetts.  It also adds to a national political issue because President Donald Trump has promised to make a massive investment in infrastructure. 

Cities and towns in Massachusetts are facing a total bill of $17 billion to keep water infrastructure in good working order, according to a report from State Auditor Suzanne Bump. The report said the financial responsibility is too great for municipalities alone and it suggested more state funding and more regionalization of water systems.

The report is based on a survey of 146 cities and towns.  It found drinking water systems need $7.2 billion in repairs, wastewater systems $8.9 billion, and stormwater upgrades require $1.6 billion. Although local officials have long known of the infrastructure repair needs, the work has been deferred by more pressing expenses, according to Bump’s report.

The Springfield Water and Sewer Commission will spend $100 million on infrastructure upgrades over a three-year period that started last summer, according to executive director Joshua Schimmel.

"We look at where we have consequence of  failure," he said. " A lot of the big projects are redundancy projects to make sure we can get the water from the source down to Springfield."

In one year, more than 7,400 feet of water main pipe will be replaced, approximately 10,000 feet of sewer main pipe replaced or rehabilitated, and about 50 manholes replaced or repaired.  Parts of the water and sewer infrastructure date back to the 1800s.

Because it’s in the ground, hidden from view, people don’t pay much attention to infrastructure until it fails.  Last year a water main break downtown opened a sinkhole that shut down a busy traffic intersection for a week.

After that incident, Schimmel assured a public forum that the city’s drinking water system, which has more than a thousand miles of pipes, is safe and reliable.

"Nobody has a crystal ball, so I can't tell you where the next water main break will be , but there will be one because that is the nature of the business," he said.

The commission raised rates last July to help pay for infrastructure work. The typical residential water and sewer bill increased by $36.60 for the year.

Springfield Director of Public Works Chris Cignoli said the infrastructure may be old, but it is not in poor condition.

" The system in general is in very very good condition," said Cignoli.

Some infrastructure in Springfield is brand new.  New pipes have been installed to deliver water and sewer service to the $950 million MGM casino complex under construction downtown, according to the city’s chief economic development officer Kevin Kennedy.

" There's $7 million  going into the ( casino project) that people don't know about  because it is below ground, but it is critically important," said Kennedy.

Bump’s report noted that economic development and climate change will both put additional strain on the water system infrastructure.  The report said only 6 percent of cities and towns have drawn up plans for addressing the impact of climate change on water and sewer systems.