When one of the two 30-inch water lines feeding the city’s system ruptured in December, the first concern of Warwick Police was how it would disrupt morning commuters on Route 37 and Route 95. An advisory was sent to the news media and early morning TV and radio newscasters picked up on the story.
Thankfully, it turned out to be a non-event. A water division crew responding to the scene shut off the geyser. Water customers, if they were up in the early morning hours, may have wondered why their taps went dry, but it wasn’t for long. Service was restored in time for people to make coffee and take a shower before heading off to work. It was a hiccup, soon forgotten.
That break, however, has yet to be repaired. The pipe runs under Route 37 and Route 95. The break is symptomatic of a system that has gone without major upgrades and replacements since the 1990s.
It’s not the only failing city infrastructure. The city’s sewer system, much of its primary laterals having been installed in the 1960s, is likewise showing its age. Last year, system collapses on Sandy Lane and Cedar Swamp Road cost the Warwick Sewer Authority millions as it unearthed pipes corroded to the breaking point by hydrogen sulfide gas. Temporary bypasses were used while the lines – some of them more than 20 feet below the pavement – were replaced with today’s non-corrosive pipes.
The sewer authority couldn’t postpone repairs. People couldn’t put off flushing toilets, showers and washing clothes and, unlike a water system with alternate means of pressurizing lines, sewer wastewater only has one place to go if it’s to go.
Before the broken Sandy Lane pipe was fully replaced the authority contracted to reline additional sections of the Sandy Lane pipe, which can be done without digging them up, before they became victims, too. The authority is aggressively tackling the issue, sending cameras down lines and identifying the weakest points. They are working on a program of relining pipes to address the problem. The same technology is being looked at as a means of extending the life of water lines.
Fortunately, water systems are not restricted to a one-way flow, meaning most pipe ruptures can be circumvented and service quickly restored. The city’s second major water feed has kept the system going, but if it were to fail the remaining backup – a line in Pontiac that has not been used in some time – is all that’s left.
How dire is the situation? Are Warwick homes and businesses living on borrowed time before taps run dry?
The City Council learned last month, under questioning of City Council President Steve Merolla, about 50 percent of the system has reached its useful life expectancy, which is expected to increase to 75 percent in another 10 to 15 years.
Dan O’Rourke, director of the water division, did not paint a pretty picture. While he did not have at his fingertips what funds the division has in bonding or reserves to take on a project to ensure the delivery of water to its 27,000 customers, he said a plan is in the making. In addition to the city system, Kent County Water Authority services about 4,400 Apponaug, Cowesett, Arnold’s Neck, Natick and Potowomut customers.
The water system outdates the sewer system, with some pipes servicing homes and businesses since the early 1900s. O’Rourke told the council upgrades haven’t been made since the 1990s and early 2000s. O’Rourke estimated it would cost $150 million to $170 million to replace the system, which if you applied O’Rourke’s estimate that 50 percent of the system has reached its life expectancy, it would cost $75 million to $85 million to update.
Pushed for funding details, O’Rourke said, “We need to replenish the renewal and replacement fund.”
“We’re not even paying one percent of $100 million…and the infrastructure continues to get older and older. We have to come up with a plan to replace the system because it’s going to fail,” Merolla said.
In a statement released this week, the mayor’s office acknowledged issues surrounding the city’s infrastructure.
“The mayor has been clear both in public remarks and discussions with you that the condition of the entire water and sewer infrastructure system and roadways [as well as other municipal assets] are of concern and addressing them is a priority. With this in mind, the mayor has remained committed to his pledge made during the inaugural ceremony to continue to assess all infrastructure and assets and is in the process of developing a long-term plan to address these issues by priority and in a cost-effective way.”
It goes on to say residents and businesses should not be inconvenienced “by infrastructure failures that should have been addressed years ago in some cases.”
Reached Tuesday, Merolla said, “This isn’t new, it’s just coming to fruition because we’re having pipe collapses.”
Merolla points out that as enterprise funds the sewer authority and water division should be generating their own revenue or issuing revenue bonds that would be repaid by the users of the systems through fees. As that is the case, he questions why water and sewer funding should be included in the city budget, which requires council approval.
Merolla points out that city water rates are substantially less than those of the Kent County Water Authority, adding, “and maybe that’s why we need to pay more for water. That’s better than no water at all.”
David Simons, director of the Kent County Water Authority, projected Wednesday if the cost of the infrastructure replacement plan and capital improvements were stripped out of their rates, the rate would be comparable to Warwick. The authority maintains a $6 million infrastructure replacement fund. He said since 1998 the authority has either replaced or added through new developments 50 percent of its system today.
While the Kent County Water Authority is similar in size to Warwick with 26,831 customers, because of the varied terrain it covers it has eight pressure gradients. This requires pressure-reducing valves for customers close to sea level as well as tanks and pumps to adequately provide for all its customers.
Simons said the authority has an emergency interconnect with Warwick that could supply up to 1.4 million gallons a day if the Warwick water from the Providence Water Supply was interrupted. That could help, although it would hardly meet city demands of more than 8 million gallons a day.
Making a comparison to National Grid, Merolla said the Grid, which faces state regulation, has an ongoing renewal and replacement program.
“The private sector infrastructure is up-to-date and working,” he said.
Merolla suggests retaining a consultant to study both the sewer and water systems with the objective of determining renewal and replacement costs, what it would mean to undertake them and what privatizing (leasing or selling) the systems as they are could mean for the city.
“In my opinion, it ought to be sold,” said Merolla. “It’s not working and I’m not confident in the model [as it is now]. It’s not sustainable.”
In his closing remarks to the City Council, O’Rourke said he is confident that the administration is committed to addressing the water system. “[The administration] won’t sit around and hope it doesn’t break.”
Solomon said Wednesday he is looking at the cost of repairing the major feed line that he estimated “well into the six figures.”