Fingers crossed, city looks to repair ruptured water main

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As long as water flows from Warwick spigots, the city’s water division is taking a cautious approach to the repair of a 30-inch main that runs under Interstate 95 and Route 37 – one of two major supply lines for the city – that has been out of service since last December.

Dan O’Rourke, director of the city’s water system – which is a division of the Department of Public Works – said last week that bid specifications for an inspection of the ruptured line and how best to repair it have been prepared by division engineers.

The city’s water is purchased from the Providence Water Supply Board and feeds more than 400 miles of pipes providing service to over 25,000 customers. The Kent County Water Authority services an additional 4,000 Warwick customers, mainly in the western section of the city including Apponaug, Natick and Cowesset. Kent is dependent on its water from its own wells and, to a lesser extent, on Providence water supplied through the Warwick system and the feed to the Warwick-owned Bald Hill Road water tanks.

As O’Rourke explains, the 30-inch main now out of service is linked to a far larger Providence network that is also showing its age and in need of attention.

“Providence has had problems with the 102-inch aqueduct over the last decade or so, and they still have a portion of that out of service. That provides a feed to over 60 percent of the state, either directly or indirectly. Because of that still being out of service, it has somewhat delayed the inspection of the 30-inch line,” he said.

Yet without the 30-inch line, the city is walking a tightrope without a full safety net.

Warwick Water has two active wholesale connections with Providence Water, two 30-inch connections (one of those is the line that ruptured in December) off of a 42-inch main on Pettaconsett Avenue in Cranston and a 42-inch connection off a 102-inch aqueduct on Natick Avenue in West Warwick.

“We still have the other line in service, and thankfully we have that in service and an additional redundancy with a couple of other locations – God forbid we have to utilize those other lines. So there was no reduction in pressure or volume that I’m aware of throughout our water system during the peak time this spring and summer,” O’Rourke said.

At its peak, the city system is using as much as 17 million gallons a day, O’Rourke said. The annual daily average, according to Providence Water, is 7.1 million gallons.

While that is surely a lot, water usage has dropped in recent years as consumers are more conscious of conservation. That, in turn, has cut into water division revenues, which are based on usage.

If the second major feed were to fail, O’Rourke said he would look to supply the system through smaller connections with Kent County and a reactivated connection to Cranston and Providence Water at North Hampton Street. However, these alternate sources of supply could not meet peak Warwick demand.

“I believe it would meet normal demand,” O’Rourke said.

Nonetheless, the thought of a major water break and the interruption of service to the city or a large segment of customers keeps him up at night. Surely an emergency situation would be dealt with and service restored as quickly as feasible, but most probably at significant cost.

Limited renewal & replacement

As O’Rourke detailed in his quarterly report to the City Council in August, the system is aging, and according to his estimate, 50 percent of the infrastructure has reached its life expectancy. In recent years the division has linked efforts to the renewal and replacement of aging lines to sewer projects. Where needed, new water lines are installed when neighborhood roads are dug up for sewers, thereby saving on costs and digging up roads on multiple occasions.

Although required by state law, there has not been a recent assessment of major transmission lines or a prioritizing of projects. The division filed a renewal and replacement plan with the Department of Health in 2013. It’s due to file an updated plan this year. That plan projected spending $4,631,948 million over the last five years on a wide range of projects from tank cleaning and painting to hydrant replacements, service replacements, main replacements, inspections and pump station maintenance.

But having a plan doesn’t mean it is going to be followed or enforced, especially when the funds aren’t available.

O’Rourke said the division has paid for upgrades and improvements with its capital budget, but there is no dedicated stream of revenue from fees to renew and replacement as has been done by the Warwick Sewer Authority. Both the water and sewer services are enterprise funds, meaning they cover the cost of operations and improvements though the fees they charge. They are also responsible for the principal and interest on the bonds they borrow.

Warwick is hardly alone in facing an aging water infrastructure. According to Christopher Hunter, spokesman for Providence Water, since the inception of Providence Water's Infrastructure Replacement Program in 1996, it has reinvested $460 million worth of capital improvements and infrastructure replacement into the system, with $118 million expended on the rehabilitation of 86 miles of water mains.

Key to repairing the Pettaconsett break is understanding the condition of the two connections and the feed from which they emanate. The plan, therefore, is to inspect both lines.

“We’re all one big happy water family in terms of the wholesale customers, so everything has to be coordinated with them. They’re anticipating having that line (the 102-inch aqueduct) back in service sometime during the month of October. They’ve had delays on it for various reasons,” he said.

“We currently have the lower section of the 102-inch aqueduct off line for inspection and repair work. Both of Warwick Water’s connections have remained in service while the lower section of the 102-inch aqueduct has been offline. In summary, Warwick Water’s 30-inch connection is still being supplied by our 42-inch main and their 42-inch connection is being supplied by the upper section of the 102-inch aqueduct which has not be taken off line,” Hunter said in an email.

Once the Providence system is fully restored, O’Rourke said the plan is to inspect the Warwick connection and “come up with a real concrete analysis of the condition of that line to be sure that’s in good shape.”

“The idea is to take a look – to do an inspection – and there’s technology … it will give you an analysis of the pipe, the thickness, weak spots, leaks – it’s done the correct way. That’s what Bristol County Water Authority, they utilize the same technology for their cross-bay pipeline,” O’Rourke said.

He added: “Until you do that conditional analysis, you can’t determine what method you’re going to utilize. That’s where we’re at right now. Once a contractor goes out to bid for proposal, it’s a matter of coordinating with them. It will consist of a series of four or five taps in the line under live conditions – because you don’t want to take it out of service, the good line.”

What about ongoing infrastructure repairs and upgrades?

Mayor Joseph Solomon said he is exploring means of addressing water and sewer infrastructure upgrades with federal grants as well as Clean Water and Infrastructure Bank financing.

If an increase in water rates is part of the picture, it was neither embraced nor dismissed as a means of generating additional revenues.

“Part of the mayor’s infrastructure view when he took office was not just roads and LED lights, it was sewer enterprise fund and water enterprise funds. The mayor has been a big proponent on reinvesting in the city, whether it’s renew and replacement, federal money, looking at historic low rates from the bond infrastructure bank – it’s not different than any other government. We’ve been here 377 years, we’re going to probably be here another 377 years, and we have to reinvest, as governments do, in our infrastructure. There’s a lot of resources to do it,” said William DePasquale, chief of staff and city planner.

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Ben Dover

More like, "Legs crossed as city faces financial rupture."

Sunday, October 6