It's 10 a.m. in Southwest Baltimore, and a city crew has been here for five hours. Traffic cones direct cars through an obstacle course on Maiden Choice Lane, just across the city line from the suburb of Catonsville. Earlier, water was rushing through the street but now there is just waiting. Soon, a supervisor with the Department of Public Works will open the street and investigate what ails these nearly century-old pipes.
Another day, another water main break in Baltimore.
Like many other cities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Baltimore has aging infrastructure and limited funds to fix its problems. Its issues may be the most severe, but it is far from being alone in its predicament. From Richmond to the District of Columbia and on to smaller cities like Lancaster, governments struggle to keep up with infrastructure to handle the existing population and accommodate the growth and impervious surface that continues to come. And they have to do it in a time of limited budgets — local and state funds are tight, and the federal government hasn't passed a water resources bill in more than five years.
"Every city's going through this," said Joseph Ferrara, a Baltimore Department of Public Works supervisor. Ferrara was standing sentry at the northern city-county border, about 14 miles away from his colleagues on Maiden Choice Lane, attending to a water main break on Charles Street. Temperatures were just below freezing and Ferrara wanted to get the break fixed before the thermometer dipped lower. The worst breaks happen when the temperatures zigzag from freezing to 60 degrees, as it seemed to do often in 2013.
Last winter, Baltimore City occasionally reported as many as seven water main breaks in a day, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. Some are relatively small, like the one Ferrara was working.
But others have the potential to displace residents, snarl traffic and even endanger drivers and pedestrians. Such was the case with the break in November at Charles Street and North Avenue, about two miles from downtown Baltimore. A 60-inch transmission pipe burst and sent water into the roads, turning Charles Street into a river. Buses had to be rerouted, businesses had to close, and residents had to relocate. That pipe was 90 years old. The average age for pipes in the city is 70; they are built to last 100 years, but start to deteriorate at 75 years.
Breaks like those cost employers time and commuters frustration, and they force spending in other areas, such as roads above the pipe and buildings near it.
Just one hour south of Baltimore, Washington, DC, is also dealing with an aging infrastructure that means an average of one water main break a day. Most are small lines that deliver minor inconveniences. But a recent one closed New York Avenue, a major downtown thoroughfare and the road that ultimately becomes U.S. Route 50. Another one, on Constitution Avenue, flooded the basement of the Internal Revenue Service and closed the Smithsonian, said George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water.
Municipal infrastructure is a tricky problem. The pipes are underground — out of sight, and largely out of mind. States and counties have been focused on infrastructure related to water for more than a decade. That money and energy has generally been about reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants and upgrading filtration systems at water plants, and not about pipe maintenance. That is just one of the reasons why the American Society of Civil Engineers rates all U.S. cities with a D-plus when it came to keeping up with their infrastructure in 2013.
Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have spent billions of dollars upgrading their wastewater treatment plants to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus to meet the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, also known as the pollution diet. Recently, they've turned their attention to stormwater systems. They have also made major investments in municipal water plants to protect drinking water.
There is no flexibility on a lot of this work. It's mandated, and it makes up a significant part of a city's water and sewer budget. Once those costs are paid for and the mandates are satisfied, Hawkins said, there's not much money left for preventative maintenance.
"In a sense of good engineering, absolutely these projects should be funded. But they're discretionary," Hawkins said. "Going out and repairing a 100-year-old water main that is cracking a lot but hasn't been broken — that's discretionary. That is where you trim your budget. What's left over, what you can still fit, is what you are able to put toward your good engineering."
That leaves cities with tough choices — raise rates or fix problems as they come up instead of preventing them.
"We have a very good idea of the most urgent areas," said Rudy Chow, Baltimore's director of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater. "But the level of work to pinpoint where you need to be? I'd say it's pretty much everywhere."
Since Chow arrived in Baltimore two years ago, after 27 years with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Corp., he has been talking about a strategic plan. Baltimore has 4,000 miles of pipe; until recently, it had only been replacing 5 miles a year.
Chow has set a goal of 20 miles by the end of 2013, and hopes to add five miles each year until the city is at 40 miles annually. Already, the city has spent between $300 million and $400 million, Chow said, and will spend an additional $300 million by 2016. Over time, replacing the entire system will cost $4 billion for the city and the county — and this in a region that grapples with extreme poverty.
By regional standards, water bills in Baltimore are low. Homeowners pay their sewer bill with their property tax, so the water bill comes quarterly. The average water and wastewater bill is about $266 a year, or about $22 a month. It is, Chow acknowledges, one of the more reasonable rates nationwide.
Greg DiLoreto, president of the America Society of Civil Engineers and the CEO of a water utility in Portland, OR, said solutions to the problems cities face are expensive, but will cost even more if cities defer them to the next generation of administrators.
DiLoreto said he is trying to convince legislators on Capitol Hill and in the State Houses that money spent on infrastructure is an investment, not an expense. Over the next several years, the United States is planning to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure improvements. But it needs to spend $1.6 trillion more, according to DiLoreto's group. As it stands, DiLoreto said, the United States only spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. That's half of what it spent 50 years ago, when this country was in the grips of a building boom. China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure.
"It won't do us a lot of good to have first-class water at the treatment plant if it can't get to your house. None of us wants to live that way," DiLoreto said. "If we're concerned about raising rates, imagine what it would cost us if we had to buy bottled water."
DiLoreto has testified in Congress for increased funding for both the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, which took a cut in the president's most recent budget, and a new Water Infrastructure Finance Innovations Authority, which would raise federal dollars to help states with infrastructure needs. The revolving loan fund monies go to help improve water-treatment plants and not pipe infrastructure, but DiLoreto said if that program was fully funded it could free state money to pay for pipe improvements.
Another tool that is helping cities tackle these problems is asset management. Under this system, engineers enter reams of data into a computer model — the location and age of pipes, the last time they were replaced or repaired and their general condition. That information helps them predict which pipes to fix next. It is relatively new, but cities like Baltimore, DC and Richmond already use it.
Richmond developed as a population center in the mid-1800s, and its pipes are not as old as Baltimore's. The city occasionally has "catastrophic" breaks, but more often its problems are mundane, according to Director of Public Utilities Robert Steidel.
"We have a master planning process. We have assessed our pipelines by the type of material," Steidel said. "The whole system is evaluated and built on a risk schedule."
When pipes need attention, Steidel said, "we either dig them up and replace them, or we clean the inside and put a liner inside the pipe."
That attention and maintenance costs the city about $10 million a year. It has forced Richmond to raise rates to about $80 a month, Steidel said — about four times what Baltimore residents pay.
Recently, both the Sierra Club and the NAACP complained about the higher rates, with the Sierra Club also concerned that a one-size-fits-all fee doesn't encourage residents to use less water.
Steidel said the government is paying attention to the complaints, but couldn't do too much about them. Access to clean water, he said, doesn't come cheap.
"We have plans, and we constantly re-evaluate the plans. But they are very expensive, and they cost a lot of money, and people don't want to pay the money," he said. "The money has to be spent, but people also have to be able to pay their bills. That is where the toughness comes in."
Charlotte Katzenmoyer knows all about the difficulty in raising costs. When she became public works director for Lancaster, PA, in 2001, her first priority was to safeguard and improve the drinking water plant. Next, she turned her attention to improvements in the sewage-treatment system. Finally, there were mandated stormwater improvements. Lancaster, like many cities, had a combined sewer and stormwater system.
After much planning and discussion with the EPA, Lancaster decided to invest heavily in green infrastructure projects like porous pavement and parks to help treat the water where it fell instead of trying to untangle the web of pipes that connect the two systems.
That was all well-received in town, but Katzenmoyer said she also discovered a lot of deferred maintenance — pipe repairs that weren't made because the city didn't have the funds.
Lancaster raised its rates 75 percent. At $110 per quarter, its 60,000 city residents pay far less than Richmond's do. And, Katzenmoyer said, the people seem to understand why the rate hike was necessary.
"I think we did a good job of explaining the amount of investment that we need to make and customers are seeing the investment…torn up streets all over the place for the main replacements," she said. "Now THAT gets a response: 'Why the inconvenience?'"
DiLoreto and others are worried about proposed federal changes that would tax municipal bonds and make them less attractive to buyers. If that happened, cities would be hit with a double-whammy: a cut in the revolving loan fund plus the inability to raise the money on their own.
Fortunately for Lancaster, Katzenmoyer said the city borrowed the funds in 2011 for a three-year capital program and is set for the near future.
DC has also felt the pain of raised monthly rates — they've nearly doubled, to about $80, since Hawkins joined DC Water five years ago. That is in part because of mandates at the Blue Plains treatment plant and in part because of a $2.6 billion initiative to build tunnels that will control combined sewer and stormwater overflows — the city's biggest investment in infrastructure since building the Metro. Even with the higher rates, customers are getting a bargain. They just don't know it because they are not used to paying the true cost of water, Hawkins said. He points out that their water bill is lower than their cable and cell phone bills.
The problem, Hawkins said, is that, in the early 1900s, engineers put in solid systems with pipes that would last for a century, and then left them alone.
"A lot of this work was generated before our ratepayers were even born," Hawkins said. "Now that the bill has come due to so many cities, it's current ratepayers that are trying to catch up…there's almost no way to go to ratepayers today and get the full rate."
In Baltimore, Chow said, he is thankful for the foresight of engineers who helped design a rather sophisticated water system nearly a century ago that is "a masterpiece of layout." The groundwork has been laid, he said. What remains is the money and political will to keep up with the maintenance.
"What we are facing is how do we maintain a system that is well thought out so we can pass it on to the next generation?" Chow asked. "I don't want to know this is a time bomb and not do anything about it."