Digging Flagstaff’s water pipelines out of a hole

By Emery Cowan

It was nearly four in the afternoon in September 2009 when one of Flagstaff’s main 16-inch water lines began gushing water near Turquoise Drive and Forest Avenue.

As water spilled down the street, Northern Arizona Dermatology Center saw its water service get completely cut off. For at least a couple of days, the center had to haul in bottled water, make trips to Flagstaff Medical Center to use the bathroom and reschedule most of its medical procedures, Office Manager Michele Bonham said.

The costs of maintaining, repairing and replacing water lines like the one on Turquoise are solely funded by city water rates and fees. But right now, that funding isn’t keeping up with the costs of keeping the system running smoothly, ratcheting up the risk they will break or fail.

If Flagstaff’s water rates remain as they are, utility department officials say they are on track to fall further and further behind on needed replacements of its aging water pumps, pipelines and treatment plants, taking them beyond their useful life.

The city’s utilities department is looking to the water rate increase under consideration by Flagstaff City Council for the millions required to catch up with needed improvements. It would provide 40 percent of the $78.4 million in capital improvement project the city has deemed it needs to complete over the next five years.

But even the 3 percent rate increase that’s on the table will leave the utilities department unable to afford several projects recommended by outside consultants. And in the future, water infrastructure costs are only expected to increase as a larger proportion of the city’s pipes and treatment systems reaches the age of needing replacement.

The situation illustrates the scale of expenditures required to keep water flowing throughout the city, and provides just a preview of the millions of dollars that will be required from residents and businesses in the decades to come.

A buried problem

Flagstaff’s mounting water system costs are hardly unique. A challenge that “for many years was largely buried in our national consciousness” is how the American Water Works Association describes the water infrastructure situation facing utilities nationwide. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 estimated that $384 billion is needed over the next 20 years to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water systems.

Put simply, what people are paying for water isn’t enough to maintain the systems that keep that water drinkable and flowing, said Tracy Mehan, executive director for government affairs with the American Water Works Association.

Ryan Roberts, the city of Flagstaff’s engineering manager, agreed.

“There hasn’t been a strong palate to take on replacement of aging infrastructure through rates,” he said. “We have infrastructure that was installed by our forefathers but now, when replacement costs comes up, in a lot of cases we’ve been taking things to failure, like pipelines.”

Miles of pipes

Aging pipeline replacement is among the city’s top priorities for the additional cash from a rate increase.

When main water lines burst, they can cause major flooding and water supply issues, but small leaks can be equally detrimental. In 2008, a leaking pipe that went unnoticed created an underground sinkhole, eventually causing a road to collapse and swallow an APS service truck.

Leaking pipes also contribute to the 291 million gallons of water the city loses or can’t account for each year — 11 percent of its total distribution.

The rate increase will boost funding for pipeline replacement alone by $9.8 million over the next five years, increasing the utility department’s budget for those projects by 68 percent. Getting a boost from rate increase revenues is the only way the city will hit its goal of replacing all of its oldest and most vulnerable water and wastewater pipes within the next decade.

Much of that work will be concentrated in downtown and Southside neighborhoods where 38 miles of water and wastewater lines are more than 70 years old, which is generally the lifespan of cast iron pipes. The city’s oldest line dates back to the 1890s.

The material of a pipe — cast iron is particularly prone to failure as it ages — as well as break history and the number of users upstream and downstream are other factors utility officials examine in determining replacement projects.

On the wastewater side of things, massive improvements are needed to the city’s Wildcat Wastewater Treatment Plant. According to Daily Sun archives, the city has already plowed $44 million into the plant, most recently spending $2.1 million to bring it into compliance with state environmental requirements for A+ reclaimed wastewater.

Now, the city needs to invest more to expand the plant’s capacity and find a permanent solution to treat millions of gallons of solids flowing into the plant each day. The plant is currently taking in 5.6 million gallons of sludge daily and with population growth it won’t be long before the plant reaches its 6 million-gallon-per-day capacity, said Brad Hill, the city’s utilities director.

The city is planning to allocate nearly $10 million in rate increase dollars to create a plan and build new infrastructure at the plant, all money that wasn’t allocated in the city’s existing capital improvement budget.

Almost $300,000 in rate increase money will go toward water meter replacements over the next five years, which are needed to accurately record how much city water is flowing to each tap, while another $4.68 million over the next five years will need to go toward upgrades to Lake Mary Water Treatment Plant, which is operating with some equipment that is more than 50 years old, Roberts said.

Water trends

Many aspects of Flagstaff’s water infrastructure situation tie into larger trends in water use.

Increases in water conservation, for example, pose a revenue conundrum for utilities across the nation, including Flagstaff, where water use is expected to decline by 5 percent over the next five years. Many utilities use volume-based models to provide the bulk of their revenue, adding only a small set fee to water bills. But as people use less water, revenue that’s based on gallons consumed declines, despite the fact that infrastructure costs are as high as ever. In the West especially, where drought is forcing conservation, utilities are having to respond by ratcheting up residents’ fixed fees to recover costs, said Mehan, of the American Water Works Association.

The city’s plans to spend an estimated $268 million to drill wells and build a pipeline to access water at its Red Gap Ranch property exemplifies another trend in water consumption: water sources that are increasingly expensive due to more difficult access or more required treatment.

It’s an effect that we should have been expecting, Mehan said.

“Laws of supply and demand are coming home to roost,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine water getting any cheaper given the circumstances.”

Information from azdailysun.com

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