Massachusetts needs billions to ensure clean water
Sunday, September 27, 2015

By: Associated Press

BOSTON — In Massachusetts, where some water and sewer systems in older cities date back to the 1800s, experts predict billions of dollars will be needed in the coming years to ensure that clean drinking water continues to flow.

"The idea that people will pay more per month for cellphone service than they pay for their water and sewer, and that they get more aggravated by the water and sewer costs is a mindset we have to work to correct," says Steve McCurdy, director of municipal services for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "People will think they can't live without a cellphone, but they definitely cannot live without clean water."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its most recent projection, said it would cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation's existing drinking water infrastructure. For Massachusetts, the EPA estimated the need at about $7.7 billion, including $5.6 billion to maintain the transmission and distribution network.

Other estimates are higher: A 2012 report from the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, created by the state Legislature, found Massachusetts "conservatively" faced a $10.2 billion gap in resources for drinking water over a two-decade period, along with an $11.2 billion gap in resources for wastewater projects.

Aging water systems suffered "from a lack of investment, delayed maintenance and insufficient resources," the report said. Hundreds of miles of pipeline to homes are in service beyond their useful life, leading to underground leaks and water main breaks that can affect single neighborhoods or entire regions.

In 2010, a 10-foot-wide transmission line burst in Weston, spilling millions of gallons into the Charles River and forcing about 2 million Boston-area residents to boil their drinking water for several days. This past May, a state of emergency was declared in Brockton after a century-old, 24-inch water main buckled, forcing some businesses to close and hospitals to reschedule elective procedures.

Yet in many communities, officials say, water and sewer assessments fall far short of covering the full costs for delivering clean drinking water, and rarely pay for capital improvement plans for infrastructure.

"We're talking about things that are often underground, out of sight and out of mind, and are difficult to raise money for," said Becky Smith, campaigns director for the advocacy group Massachusetts Clean Water Action.

According to a 2014 survey by Tighe & Bond, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, annual water costs in Massachusetts ranged from as low as $112 to as high as $1,566, with a statewide average of $532 per customer. The survey also showed the average rate had nearly doubled since 2000.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides on average 215 million gallons of water a day to some 2.5 million greater Boston residents, initially asked ratepayers for an average 4.1 percent increase before settling on a 3.4 percent hike. The MWRA, which oversaw a historic $3.8 billion cleanup of Boston Harbor, says 60 percent of its $702 million budget this year will go toward debt.

"Municipalities are always trying to spend their money in ways that keep their systems from crumbling," said Smith, who served on the state commission. "But they are (facing) greater and greater tasks."

Among those challenges is keeping up with potential contaminants, such as new chemicals that are being used in household products that after disposal can cycle back into drinking water supplies, she said.

Despite significant needs, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation's drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, according to a review by The Associated Press. That's largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.

Massachusetts has been allocated $478 million in federal grants from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund through 2015 and recently appears to be doing a better job than many states of utilizing the funds. The percentage of grants left unspent has fallen from 6 percent in 2011 to 2.4 percent this year.

Unlike many western states, Massachusetts and other Northeast states enjoy plentiful rainfall and rarely experience drought, adding to complacency about water infrastructure and resistance to rate hikes.

"It is infrastructure that needs to be maintained and nothing you maintain is free," said McCurdy.

Our view: Region's aging infrastructure should be a campaign issue

Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2014 8:30 pm

One can’t blame Salem residents for their trepidation when they turn the faucet on their kitchen sink these days — they don’t know if they’re going to get clean water or brown, a trickle or nothing at all.

On their own, the breaks haven’t been catastrophic. Taken together, however, they tell a story of an aging system headed for a breakdown. It’s a problem that’s not unique to Salem and one that should be on the radar of the steady stream of political candidates streaming through the city.

Sadly, the next candidate to unveil a plan to address the region’s aging infrastructure — in a way that won’t bankrupt municipalities or their taxpayers — will be the first. It’s much easier to complain about an opponent’s attack ad than offer workable solutions to the problems that affect residents’ daily lives.

The city has suffered at least 10 water main breaks over the past two weeks, frustrating citizens and shining a light on a system that is proving to be weak at the seams.

City engineer David Knowlton said last week that many of the breaks happened after the city took Folly Hill Reservoir in Danvers offline for repairs. Bringing in water from other sources required stronger pressure.

“It takes a little bit more to push the water,” Knowlton told reporter Neil H. Dempsey. “We have to push it farther away.”

More pressure means more breaks in the city’s water lines, Knowlton said. “We’re kind of finding their weak spots.

Knowlton said he expects the number of breaks to decrease as the system settles down. And he said the repairs to Folly Hill Reservoir — a 10 million gallon underground storage tank the size of a football field — could help it last another 100 years.

But even Knowlton acknowledged some of the breaks, including one at Loring Avenue and Sumner Road last Friday, had nothing to do with the reservoir work.

The fact is, Salem is one of the oldest cities in the state and, like other communities across the commonwealth, large chunks of its infrastructure are in need of an upgrade. It’s an expense the city can’t handle on its own; state and federal help should be in the offing.

WRRDA's Massachusetts Provisions

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, known as WRRDA, passed in May 2014, includes $310 million for a Boston Harbor dredging project designed to deepen Boston Harbor's main navigation channels. Boston Harbor is an economic anchor for the entire New England region, and improving the harbor to accommodate more and larger ships brings the promise of more economic activity to the area.

Dredging the harbor will double the number of containers on ships coming into Boston. The project will also allow the port to accommodate ships being built to serve the expanded Panama Canal, which is planned to open next year.

The Army Corps projects that for every dollar spent on construction, there will be $9 returned in increased economic activity, resulting in a $2.7 billion economic benefit for the entire New England region.

TAUNTON, MASS, April 11, 2014 — Water experts anticipate a $21 billion funding gap over the next 20 years as they advocate for updating the state’s water infrastructure.“I’ve always classified water and wastewater as the forgotten infrastructure,” said Joe Favaloro, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s advisory board. “When you turn on the faucet one day and nothing comes out, then you realize you have a problem.”In 2013, an average of 202.7 million gallons flowed through the MWRA’s water system, sections of which are nearly a century old.“You don’t want to paint this bleak picture, but having said that, we have an infrastructure that’s nearing 100 years old in many sections,” Favaloro said.The two-decade, $21 billion funding gap was a conclusion drawn from a 2012 Massachusetts Water Infrastructure Financing Commission report.When it comes to funding public budgets, particularly during lean fiscal cycles, infrastructure often draws the short straw, said Martin Pillsbury, environmental director at the Metropolitan area Planning Council.“Infrastructure’s the last thing on the list,” he said. “It usually gets deferred unless there’s a crisis.”Although there are some state loans available, the main funding source for water infrastructure comes from local water bill payments.“The problem becomes that it’s very difficult to raise rates to a high enough level to really cover the cost completely,” Pillsbury said. “It’s not unlike asking for a tax increase, even though it’s really not a tax increase. It’s a fee for what you use.”Maintaining approximately 125,000 miles of sewer lines, more than 100 municipal wastewater treatment plants and thousands of drinking water wells is typically the responsibility of cities and towns.Taunton is in a better position than most municipalities across the commonwealth in terms keeping up with water line infrastructure maintenance, according to Cathal O’Brien, Water Division Supervisor of Taunton’s Department of Public Works.O’Brien said having an enterprise system for both water and sewer divisions has gone a long way in paying for improvement projects across the city.He also credits the foresight of recent mayors and City Councils for ensuring that the city is self-sufficient when it comes to keeping up with water-related infrastructure demands.“Taunton during the past 10 years has been way ahead of the curve,” O’Brien said.
By Gerry Tuoti, Wicked Local Newsbank Editor
Charles Winokoor, Taunton Gazette Staff Writer Posted Apr. 11, 2014 @ 5:58 pm Updated Apr 11, 2014 at 6:05 PM