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Hanging up on a wall in the office where I used to work is a section of the city’s ancient water line (ancient, as in almost 100 years old), made of wood, and dug up in that California city’s water system sometime in 2002.

Wooden water pipe? Nearly 100 years old? Still in use?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

A wooden water main is made by lashing together wooden planks with a coil of metal. Think of this water pipe as a long, narrow “barrel.”

But here’s a crucial question – will it last another 100 years? Most likely not. However, it is not unusual for many cities in the eastern states to have water lines that are much more than 100 years old.

There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year in the United States, and it’s almost inevitable that the problem will be getting worse.

And when we say “leaks,” it’s not like a drip in a kitchen sink. These are full-on breaks in water mains that cause road wash-outs, and flood city blocks, subway lines, city facilities, businesses, and homes. These are flowing water bursts that spew out thousands – if not millions – of gallons of drinkable water.

A break in Niagara Falls, NY resulted in some 11 million gallons of water lost before the leak was brought under control.

It seems easy enough to say that there should be a regular program of replacing aging water lines. But what if an “aging water line” will work perfectly well for another 10 or 15 years, and the several million dollars it would take to replace the aging (but still working) water line can be better used on current, more critical priorities?

In a situation like this, time is a friend. It gives the opportunity to build up fund balances and to more carefully assess where the most critical problems reside.

Unlike other infrastructure like streets, parks, and public buildings, the deteriorating condition of underground water lines cannot be visibly and easily assessed. Such assessments are a complicated and costly undertaking. A city of 40,000 population may have 150 miles of water main.

It takes a steady hand and a meticulous, defendable program of capital improvements to set aside the millions of dollars needed for assessing water main conditions and undertaking a year-over-year program of rehabilitation and replacement.

The challenge for local government staffs is to have a capital projects planning system that does two key things: First, the system must be able to quickly respond to changes in priorities, environmental issues, fund balance projections, and shifting political direction. In other words, a CIP planning system that can turn on a dime when necessary.

Second, the system must deliver to the chief executive a plan that can be clearly explained, one that takes the complex and makes it understandable. A plan that can be fine-tuned to align with the chief executive’s own administrative strategies and priorities regarding staffing, overall budget spending, pro forma analysis, and sense of what elected officials will support.

Try that for about a dozen years – including raising water rates, often in the face of public opposition, to pay for water rehab and replacement projects – and you’ll be just at the beginning of feeling like you’re starting to get a handle on your water system improvements and your overall capital improvements planning.

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