Money down the drain

The Democrat and Chronicle this morning had an excellent article on how the aging Rochester, N.Y., water distribution system allows 24 percent of the treated water to leak out before it reaches customers.  The corresponding figure for the Monroe County Water Authority, which serves the Rochester suburbs, is 15 percent. This range is not unusual for cities in the Northeast.

Wouldn’t this be a good time to start work on repairing these deteriorating stuctures?  Since this work is going to have to be done somehow sometime, why not now, when our country needs to create jobs to keep our recession from becoming a full-blown depression?

The financially strapped City of Rochester and Monroe County governments aren’t in a position now to start big infrastructure projects. The pressure on them is to do the reverse – to defer maintenance.  The American Recovery Act of 2009 did provide some funds for infrastructure improvements, mainly of roads and bridges, but there is much more to be done.

And, yes, since we’re in the middle of a recession, the federal government would have to borrow to provide funds to help repair municipal water systems. But we, the taxpayers, would get a return on this investment, in the form of a more efficient and less costly water supply.  And the longer the wait in making these repairs, the more costly they’ll be.

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2 Responses to “Money down the drain”

  1. Perette Barella Says:

    I find the D&C article lacking perspective. In actuality, the city is (and has steadily been) working on repair the water system. They outright replaced the water main on my street a few years back, and every summer I see different areas of the city where there are temporary, above-ground water lines placed at street level while the city “cleans and relines” the underground pipes. I believe each summer they replace a few more miles of the main pipes that run to Hemlock lake, and over the last few years both treated water reservoirs (Cobbs Hill and Highland Park) have been drained, cleaned, and sealed/relined to reduce leaks (I understand there were still problems with Highland, but it was drained again earlier this year so maybe they’re trying to fix it again).

    There’s a lot of infrastructure there, though, and so it’s time consuming and expensive to have to fix or replace it. It’s trickier than having to install it in the first place, both because there’s a lot more buried junk under our streets that has to be worked around than when the pipes were first installed, and also because customers’ existing water service needs to be maintained while work is completed.

    Fixing the water system is a worthy and necessary project, and probably would be a good use of some of those TARP dollars. But in a system as large and complex as ours, there will always be some leaks, and always be work that needs to be done. Holding entropy in check with steady ongoing maintenance year over year seems to me like a fair plan of action to me.


  2. philebersole Says:

    Hi, Perette: –

    You are of course correct that maintaining our water infrastructure requires a continuing effort, and not some big one-time-only project. And I hope I didn’t give the impression of criticizing the city of Rochester’s hard-working water service crews.

    It seems to me, though, that the best way for the federal government to stimulate the economy is to spend money on things we as a nation actually need, rather than subsidizing car sales or house sales.

    When I wrote my original post, a 24 percent water loss seemed to me like a lot, although I had no standard of comparison. I did a Google search and found a 2009 Report on America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. They said the overall average loss of water in American municipal systems is 15 percent, which the society said is unacceptably high.

    Here is the ASCE fact sheet on the U.S. water infrastructure

    Admittedly civil engineers have a vested interest in public works projects, but if that were their bias, they would tend to advocate construction of new systems rather than catching up with maintenance on the old.

    Here is a link to an earlier report by the National Institutes of Health.

    Here is the link to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the Pittsburgh water system, which loses 58 percent of the water it pumps – more, however, to unmetered users than to leaks.


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