Maine's Water Infrastructure Problems
Maine, which like nearly all states is seeing the effects of deteriorating, obsolete and aging pipes and other water infrastructure, has experienced its share of water main breaks in recent months. The Portland Water District provides a good example. The District, which pumps water to Portland and 10 surrounding communities - including Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, Scarborough, and South Portland - is by far Maine’s largest water utility. Roughly 20% of its pipes, including 1,000 miles of water mains, are more than 80 years old. As a result, the District experienced 21 water main breaks last month, including three in Portland and one each in South Portland and Gorham just last week. In Portland, traffic had to be detoured around a break at 93 Woodford Street. Pya Road was also closed between Clifton Street and Ocean Avenue. Dozens of customers were left without water service for hours, and the detours wrought havoc for area traffic. In February, a water main break flooded downtown Portland streets, forcing the closure of two schools for a day and resulting in an order to the city’s residents to use and consume only boiled water. And a break in Lewiston shut down part of Ferry Road for several hours last week.
Like so many other communities faced with aging mains and other infrastructure, the Portland Water District has been working to overhaul outdated pipes and plumbing within tight budgetary constraints. The utility has proposed to double capital spending in 2015 and increase water prices by 3.8 percent. A December report in The Forecaster estimated that the rate increase would add 70 cents to monthly water costs for a typical family of four, and the average monthly water bill for a commercial customer using 8,000 cubic feet of water would increase about $7, to more than $164. Capital spending, financed by public bonds, is expected to grow from $12.8 million in 2014 to $25 million in 2015, most of which is expected to pay for water main replacements and upgrades at Portland Water District’s wastewater treatment facility in the East End. But more funds are desperately needed: The Forecaster’s report states that the Portland area needs nearly $150 million worth of new mains over the next two decades.
WATER RESOURCES LAW WITH MICHAUD PRIORITIES FOR MAINE ENACTED
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), passed in May 2014, authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop, maintain, and support the nation’s vital port, waterway, and flood control infrastructure needs. Congressman Mike Michaud successfully included a series of provisions for Maine’s coastal communities, harbors, businesses and UMaine; and also co-sponsored the legislation. WRRDA, which is similar to a highway bill but for harbors, will strengthen our nation’s transportation network, reduce shipping costs, and help keep American goods competitive. “I’m pleased that this important legislation that stands to benefit so many of Maine’s coastal communities is one step closer to becoming law,” said Michaud. “These ports, harbors and inland waterways are vital not just to our state and national economies, but to the livelihoods of the men and women who work so hard to keep our harbors and ports safe and productive. This bill will offer tangible benefits to Mainers and Americans – and it reflects the type of bipartisan action we need to be taking more often in Congress.”Currently, only about half of the annual revenues into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) are used for harbor maintenance. This has led to a significant backlog of maintenance needs, particularly at smaller harbors like those in Maine. The result has been an increase in shipping costs and navigation hazards, and ultimately a higher cost of goods for businesses and consumers.WRRDA will address the harbor maintenance backlog by ramping up harbor maintenance funding over ten years so that by 2025, all HMTF revenues will be spent on their intended purpose. It also includes a funding set-aside for small harbors to ensure the needs of emerging harbors are met. More details on the Maine-specific provisions included in the final bill can be found below.
Boosting investments in smaller harbors: Currently, the vast majority of HMTF expenditures typically go to the nation’s busiest harbors, causing a significant backlog of unmet maintenance needs at small and medium sized harbors, like those in Maine. WRRDA increases annual expenditures from the HMTF in order to address that maintenance backlog. It also includes a dedicated set aside to ensure small ports and harbors receive at least 10 percent of annual maintenance funding through 2022 —a priority of the Maine Department of Transportation.Rockland and Thomaston Harbors: The law includes language to slightly modify the boundaries of Rockland and Thomaston Harbors. The changes were sought by the cities and will give local businesses greater flexibility to serve the local economy. The Rockland provision was in the original House-passed bill and will allow for the efficient processing of lobster bait, helping to prevent prices from increasing for lobstermen throughout the state.Use of advanced composites: The legislation includes language promoting the use of resilient construction practices and durable materials, including “advanced composites.” The provision will help ensure infrastructure lasts longer, and can withstand ever more powerful storms. It will also help developers and manufacturers of these materials in Maine, such as the University of Maine and companies like Dragon Products.Natural infrastructure alternatives: The law includes language directing the Corps to conduct a review of alternatives available for rebuilding projects damaged by natural disasters, including the use of non-structural or natural alternatives if doing so would be appropriate and economically feasible for the life of the project. Non-structural defenses, such as dunes, wetlands, marshes, or mangroves can increase tourism and outdoor recreation, and may provide communities with increased resiliency and cost-effective protection from floods, storm surges, or other severe weather events. Maine Nature Conservancy had sought this language.Buy America: The law reauthorizes the Clean Water State Revolving Fund that states and municipalities use to finance wastewater treatment plants, and establishes a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) pilot project that will provide financing assistance for wastewater, drinking water, and other water resources projects.