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One Third of Worcester’s Water Mains Still In Need of Repair

Friday, November 30, 2012


Engineers for the City's Water Operations said close to one third of Worcester's nearly 600 miles of water mains are still in need of rehabilitation.

Decades of Work Ahead

While upgrades and repairs to Worcester's water mains have been a constant priority for the Department of Public Works and Parks' Water and Sewer Operations Division, Principal Engineer Mike Ferguson said the city typically covers only three or four of the 592 miles of pipe in Worcester each year.

"I would say that probably close to a third of the system is still in need of rehabilitation," he said.

The City's water mains and infrastructure have been the subject of renewed attention after a 30-inch water line near May and Chandler Streets failed earlier this month, flooding portions of the Worcester State University campus and forcing officials to shut off water to the entire city for the night. At the current rate of rehabilitation, the time needed to get Worcester's entire water system up to date would be measured in decades rather than years.

"If you do 10,000 feet in a year, 15,000 feet, that's a good year," said Ferguson.

According to Michael Daigneault, assistant director of Water Operations, Worcester has consistently allocated around $3 million a year to water distribution system improvements.

Some of the City's pipes are over 100 years old, but Ferguson said the century-old lines are in the minority and often ends up standing the test of time better than pipe laid during later decades because of changes in manufacturing.

"We have more main breaks on stuff from 1925 or 1930," he said. "Other pipe is 70 years old and it's not suitable for rehabbing and it has to be replaced."

At the same time, a substantial amount of the pipe over 100 years old has been completely rehabilitated. Relining, said Ferguson, is more cost-effective on the larger diameter lines, but it has its limits.

"We're scaling back on our relining simply because we've been doing it for 35 years continuously," he said. "We've gotten the majority of the miles out of the process that we can."

Funding the Fix

As an enterprise operation, the City's Water and Sewer Operations receive their financial support solely through the revenue generated by its services to ratepayers both in Worcester and in surrounding communities that buy water from the City. Daigneault, who has been with Water Operations for 29 years, said the division made the switch to an enterprise operation in the 1980s so it would be able to fully fund itself with the monies it brought in rather than send them into the City's general fund to then be allocated back out, which resulted in the Water Division being underfunded.

"There are some small advantages that I've seen over the years," he said. "It's a little more consistent as far as the budget you get year-to-year."

The switch, said Daigneault, was driven in large part by the increase in mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including the construction of a new water filtration plant that was thrust upon the City.

The Water Division's budget for fiscal year 2013 is $27,404,739, an increase of $627,567 compared to the FY2012 budget of $26,777,172. Around $3.4 million of this year's budget is designated for ordinary maintenance. The largest line item in the Water Division's budget is $11,204,120 for debt service.

The Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust, a collaborative effort between the Office of the State Treasurer, the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, administers a Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), which has used almost $2 billion in federal grants and state matching funds to help fund $5.7 billion in clean water and drinking water construction projects throughout the Commonwealth over the past 23 years, including the water filtration plant in Worcester.

However, Daigneault said that the City typically does not get involved in using the fund. For normal year-to-year capital projects, Water Operations will borrow money through the City to finance them, where the cost of borrowing is essentially the same as through the SRF and requires far less reporting and paperwork.

A New Master Plan

The Water Division is currently working with a consultant to come up with an updated master plan for continued system improvements. That master plan will be the product of a water system audit and will lay out the projects and priorities for the next five years until the process is repeated.

One of the tasks for the consultant the Water Operations Division brought in was to work with the City to develop a construction plan to rehabilitate the large diameter water main system, including the line that ruptured just a few weeks ago. Daigneault said there may be an increase in funding for water system projects once a plan for those large diameter mains is developed.

"There's no particular water main or section of the city that we have other than this one area," he said.

Officials look at the system as a whole when deciding where to focus their efforts next, and some of that work may be directed by ongoing projects in other divisions of the Department of Public Works and Parks, particularly road resurfacing work.

"The road reconstruction part of any pipe reconstruction project is fairly significant," Daigneault said. "It certainly gives us a way to get things done."


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