WATER PAINS: City needs to spend millions to fix aging transmission pipes

Posted: October 19, 2012

IT'S BEEN three months since a massive water main break flooded the basement of Cliff Eyler's southwest Center City home, and he's still assessing the value of his lost belongings.

But he counts himself lucky. Eyler, 55, said his biggest regret is losing his massive CD collection - mainly the boxes and liner notes, since he'd saved the music digitally. Beyond that, he is philosophical.

"It gave us a chance to assess where we are and where we're going," said Eyler, a longtime resident, who expects reimbursement from the city. "Now we're done with the basement cleanout."

Eyler is one of dozens of people who experienced major flooding when a water main erupted at 21st and Bainbridge streets July 22, pouring millions of gallons of water in the street. There have been two similarly large transmission main breaks since then, including one over the weekend at 3rd and Walnut streets.

While water main eruptions have made the headlines in recent months, city officials say the number of main breaks is not on the rise. Still, experts said that a city like Philadelphia with an aging water system is under a lot of pressure that will only get worse with time.

"This is a national problem, and in every older city in America, particularly in the East and Midwest, we have water mains, many of which were laid in the 19th century," said ex-Gov. Ed Rendell, an advocate for infrastructure repair. "It's inevitable that these breaks will occur and the frequency of the occurrences will only increase."

A report last year from the American Society of Civil Engineers said an additional $84 billion was needed to shore up the nation's water infrastructure. Rendell said Philly would need outside help.

"This will take a significant combined effort of city, state and federal dollars," Rendell said.

Philadelphia's water system has 3,100 miles of pipe, with an average age of about 70 years. Debra McCarty, the Water Department's deputy commissioner for operations, said the city averages about 221 breaks for every thousand miles of pipe annually - below the national average of 270 breaks for every thousand miles.

There have been five transmission breaks - to pipes of more than 16 inches in diameter - in 2012 so far. In 2011, there were eight such breaks, said McCarty.

McCarty said the city replaces about 18 miles of pipe each year, spending $60 million annually on water and sewer replacement, with that money coming from rate payers. Water bills are going up 28.5 percent over the next four years, in part to deal with repairs.

"It's a balancing act of keeping rates affordable and being responsible stewards of infrastructure," McCarty said.

The break at 3rd and Walnut streets will take time to repair, McCarty said, noting that workers must deal with gas, electrical and phone lines. But she said there was little residential damage.

Over at 21st and Bainbridge, months of repairs are drawing to a close, and the street is expected to be repaved soon.

Roughly 50 households have already filed claims with the city for damages, according to the city's risk management division. City officials said they don't know if the claims will exceed the $500,000 cap they have on repayment under state law.

Bruce Amos, 65, had to gut and rebuild his basement kitchen and dining room after the flooding. He said the city had been helpful and he expects repayment for the roughly $40,000 in expenses.

"Things happen," Amos said. "The Philadelphia Water Department acknowledged liability, and I think they're going to make all of us whole."


Contact Catherine Lucey at luceyc@phillynews.com or 215-854-4172. Follow her on Twitter @PhillyClout. Read her blog at phillyclout.com.

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