Drinking water systems imperiled by failing infrastructure
By Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press
POSTED: 09/29/15, 11:38 AM PDT
DES MOINES, Iowa
Deep inside a 70-year-old water-treatment plant, drinking water for Iowa’s capital city is cleansed of harmful nitrates that come from the state’s famously rich farmland.
Without Des Moines Water Works, the central Iowa region of 500,000 people that it serves wouldn’t have a thriving economy. But after decades of ceaseless service, the utility is confronting an array of problems: Water mains are cracking open hundreds of times every year. Rivers that provide its source water are increasingly polluted. And the city doesn’t know how it will afford a $150 million treatment plant at a time when revenues are down and maintenance costs are up.
“We’re reaching the end of the life cycle of some of the most critical assets we’ve got,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of the utility, where the downtown plant was built long before nitrates that can harm infants became a pressing concern.
Around the country, scores of decaying drinking water systems built around the time of World War II and earlier are in need of replacement. The costs to rebuild will be staggering. The costs of inaction are already piling up. The challenge is deepened by drought conditions in some regions and government mandates to remove more contaminants.
At stake is the continued availability of clean, cheap drinking water — a public health achievement that has fueled the nation’s growth for generations.
“The future is getting a little dark for something as basic and fundamental as water,” said Adam Krantz of the Water Infrastructure Network, a lobbying group that is fighting cuts to key federal water programs.
Unlike pothole-scarred roads or crumbling bridges, decaying water systems often go unnoticed until they fail. But without big changes in national policy, local governments and their ratepayers will be largely on their own in paying for the upgrades. The amount of federal money available is a drop in the bucket. That will mean rising water rates on customers, a trend that expected to continue for years.
“That’s the key that Americans have to understand: If they want this system, they are going to have to be willing to finance it,” said Greg DiLoreto, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has warned of a future with more equipment failures that will disrupt water service, transportation and commerce.
More than a million miles of underground pipes distribute water to American homes, and maintaining that network remains the largest and costliest long-term concern.
As they get older, they fail in different ways. Some split and rupture, with an estimated 700 main breaks occurring around the U.S. every day. The most devastating failures damage roadways, close businesses and shut off service for hours or days.
Utilities have long struggled to predict when to replace pipes, which have vastly different life cycles depending on the materials they are made from and where they are buried. Experts say a peak of up to 20,000 miles of pipe will need to be replaced annually beginning around 2035, up from roughly 5,000 miles currently. Each mile can cost $500,000 or more.
The impacts are playing out across the nation. The Philadelphia water department, the nation’s oldest, is already spending tens of millions of dollars more per year to replace its worst pipes. Yet the city saw more than 900 water main breaks in the most recent budget year. In June, two massive breaks forced evacuations and damaged cars, homes and businesses.
New Orleans once boasted about not raising water rates for two decades. But in 2012, the city approved 10 percent increases on water bills for eight straight years as part of a plan to fix its crumbling system. The average household’s monthly water-and-sewer bill will climb to $115 by 2020.
The massive main break that flooded the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in 2014 was widely seen as a wakeup call for failing infrastructure.
Pipes aren’t the only components in need of big investments. Many treatment plants are old and need to be replaced or rebuilt at a cost of tens of millions of dollars even in small cities. New valves to control water flow, new pumping stations to keep up pressure and new tanks to store water are also needed.
The demand for investment comes as revenue is falling, in large part because Americans are using less water and installing more efficient toilets and showerheads. Many households affected by drought have also cut their usage, either voluntarily or because of mandatory orders. That is good for conservation but starves water systems, which charge customers based on the amount used.
Facing the loss of income, many have been forced to raise rates. Customers are essentially paying more for using less.
Costs are also rising to accommodate federal regulations that require removal of more potentially harmful contaminants.
Many of these pressures are colliding in Des Moines, where the utility is considering a rate hike for customers of about 10 percent for next year.
Des Moines Water Works is fighting nitrate levels that are often far above the federal standard for safety in the two rivers that provide its source water. Nitrates are often the result of farm runoff that is tainted with fertilizer and manure, and removing them is expensive because they aren’t addressed in the normal treatment process.
The water agency has taken the unprecedented step of suing three major Iowa farming counties in federal court to try to limit the farm discharges. But the litigation has provoked intense criticism from Iowa’s powerful agricultural industry, which argues that farmers are already taking voluntary measures to control them. If the problems persist, Stowe said, the utility will have to spend $150 million to build a nitrate-removal plant.
The treatment costs also leave less money to replace Des Moines’ aging pipes. The effects are felt by residents such as Mario Tumea, whose family’s Italian restaurant was closed in May for a day and a half after a 12-inch cast-iron main from 1938 split and sent water gushing into the street.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “But when you have old pipes and stuff like that, it’s going to happen.”
Iowa View: Clean water is worth a special session - Opionion by Chuck Isenhart, Iowa state representative from Dubuque.
By Chuck Isenhart 11:17 p.m. CDT August 17, 2014
Chuck Isenhart is Executive Director of Dubuque Area Labor Management Council.
As a result of Gov. Terry Branstad’s vetoes, Iowa will invest less money in clean water this year than the governor will spend on his re-election campaign.Between his vetoes and House Republicans’ rejection of amendments to the state budget that would have maintained previous funding levels for water quality initiatives ($22.4 million), Iowa has cut funding for the much-heralded nutrient reduction strategy by 80 percent (to $4.4 million).
In the July campaign finance reporting period, the Branstad campaign spent or banked $5.4 million.In the meantime, our secretary of agriculture has estimated that cutting nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms by 41 percent will take decades and possibly billions of dollars to achieve. He told the House Environmental Protection Committee that the Water Resources Coordinating Council he chairs can’t set goals, measures and timelines until the Legislature provides substantial and reliable funding.
At the same time that Secretary Bill Northey is appealing to farm groups — as well as individual producers and landowners — to step up their game, the governor is telling Secretary Northey to sit on the bench.This simply doesn’t make sense. I challenge Iowa’s executive and legislative leadership to straighten out the mess and make up for lost time. The governor or General Assembly should convene a special session to restore or increase funding for clean-water initiatives and take this issue off the table for the November elections.
Mounting evidence in just one week of news shows that aggressive leadership is crucial lest we continue to fall farther behind:• Toledo, Ohio, shutting down its water system (there but for the grace of God goes Des Moines?).• No sign that the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia zone is shrinking.• Iowans told to stay away from major lakes and beaches because of algae blooms.• Millions of tons of topsoil and associated pollution washed into rivers with annual flooding, blocking barge traffic.• Miniscule funding for ag water quality practices tapped out in less than a week.
Meanwhile, starved of resources are the watershed management authorities that many local governments put together to work jointly on these problems, in accord with legislation we passed following the 2008 floods.With aggressive multi-year commitments in our regular budget — no more “one-time funding” — we can establish program performance measures and set water quality goals and timelines as Secretary Northey has promised. Iowans will get both cleaner water and cleaner government, with citizens getting both the accountability and return on investment that they deserve when we spend their tax dollars.
As chief executive of the state, the governor enters into the contract with the federal government committing Iowa to administer and enforce the Clean Water Act. His vetoes send the wrong message to Iowans, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to other states in the Mississippi River basin that need Iowa to lead the fight to reduce pollution flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, where it is ruining the fisheries and eco-system there.
Why does Iowa need to lead? Because Iowa and Illinois are the two biggest contributors to that pollution. And we have the can-do ability to get the job done. Gov. Branstad often compares Iowa to Illinois. Competing with Illinois on clean water is a competition where everyone can win and take credit.What If we continue to underfund the nutrient reduction strategy that we have worked so long and hard to put together? We tempt the EPA to lose patience with us and step in with the fixed water quality standards and the mandatory “one-size-fits-all” compliance measures that we say we abhor. We also embarrass Secretary Northey in his position as co-chairman of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force.The governor vetoed S.F. 2363 on the principle that “maintaining the fiscal health of Iowa over the long term” is his top budgeting priority. Yet we know that agriculture is the foundation of our economy and that maintaining the long-term productivity of Iowa’s natural resources is key to our fiscal health. Strategic capital investments in this area will foster the fiscal security the governor desires. The investments will also create jobs, moving us along our path of putting 200,000 more Iowans to work.Calling my colleagues and me back into session for one day to do the right thing will not be a political risk for the governor or for legislative leaders. Clean water routinely shows up in polls as Americans’ top environmental concern. Farm groups such as the Iowa Soybean Association have asserted that “transformationalimprovements” on the landscape will be required to meet our water quality goals.That transformation can start with Iowa’s elected leaders. We should act swiftly and resolutely to let all Iowans and all Americans know that our state means business when it comes to clean water. A special session will send that message and take the politics out of clean water.
THE AUTHOR:CHUCK ISENHART is a state representative from Dubuque. He is the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Obama signs bill to help Cedar Rapids prevent flood damage
Posted: Jun 10, 2014 2:04 PM EDTUpdated:
Jun 10, 2014 4:37 PM EDT
Written by Michelle Corless, Multimedia Journalist, KWWL.com.CEDAR RAPIDS (KWWL) -
It's been six years -- almost to the day -- since Cedar Rapids saw record flooding, and now President Obama has taken action.On Tuesday, Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act into law. The bill specifically includes the Army Corps of Engineers' Cedar Rapids flood protection project.The Army Corps approved the series of flood walls and levies for the east side of the Cedar River in 2011. However, the Army Corps needs approval before it can build. New projects are included in the WRRDA bill. This bill is also the first step to getting money from the federal government to pay for flood protection. The Army Corps did not approve a project for the west side of the Cedar River, though, city leaders in Cedar Rapids say they are dedicated to building flood protection on both sides of the river to prevent the devastation the city saw in 2008.The City of Cedar Rapids has already secured nearly $264 million from the state to cover the costs of building flood protection on both sides of the Cedar River. The city will also come up with money on its own over the next 20 years.
Harsh winter results in major increase in water main breaks in Iowa
Newton, Iowa, Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:42 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:44 a.m. CDT
Special to the Daily News
At Newton Water Works, employees will remember this past winter for the snow, ice and cold combining for a budget-bursting season of broken water mains, burst water meters and frozen pipes. From October 2013 through March, there were 30 water main breaks, and another 21 water main breaks occurred from January to March, according to a news release from Newton WaterWorks. This is more than double the previous year.
There are approximately 150 miles of water main in the city. WaterWorks officials said an estimated $62,000 plus $10,000 in overtime will have been spent by the end of the budget year in June. The amount budgeted in FY13-14 for water main repair is $32,000 and $5,000 overtime. Many of the older mains lie under the streets, and at least $30,000 will be spent on street repairs and parking restoration. Also, an outside contractor was hired to look for breaks using leak detection equipment.Not only are the actual repairs costly, but high water loss is also quite costly. For instance, water loss in March is estimated at 20 percent of the water produced for the month. That equates to 30,000,000 gallons equal to $42,000 worth of treated water. Normal water loss runs between 4 and 10 percent. Because of the severity of the winter, additional breaks may surface yet this spring.“The utility would like to thank its customers for being patient with disruptions in service,” WaterWorks General Manager L.D. Palmer stated in the news release. “Customers have been very helpful in reporting breaks.