Montgomery County saw record water main breaks. How it will fix its aging systems

Montgomery County saw a record number of water main breaks last year — 370 breaks that cost more than $2 million to repair — a symptom of its aging water and sewer infrastructure.

That’s why the county started a five-year, $750 million plan in 2018 to upgrade its system. This year it has 22 projects on tap, costing nearly $40 million. And county residents will see their utility bills go up to pay for the improvements.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. In our story last week, city of Dayton leaders revealed details for the first time about how they found and fixed a massive water main break on Feb. 13, 2019, that left 400,000 people without drinking water for two days. That story also discussed steps the city has taken since then to minimize the likelihood of a similar emergency and the overall condition of its water system.

For this story, we examine the condition of Montgomery County’s distribution system and its plan to upgrade its water and sewer infrastructure, much of which is 50 to 70 years old.

As part of that project, the county formed a two-year partnership with Central State University’s C.J. McLin International Center for Water Resource Management. The university is conducting research and installing technology on the pipes that will help county officials locate the most vulnerable lines and detect potential problems such as water main breaks.

Related: What Dayton learned after the unprecedented water outage 1 year ago

In the year since the Dayton water main break, Montgomery County has taken several steps to improve the safety and security for its water distribution system, County Commission President Judy Dodge said. That includes investing in additional water storage tanks and capital projects, improved mapping capabilities and participating in joint emergency operations exercises with Dayton.

County officials will incorporate lessons learned from that crisis into its infrastructure upgrades.

“I’m pleased that our employees have been able to work with our counterparts at the city of Dayton to discuss better communication, improved emergency response, and shared mapping and customer information,” Dodge said.

Deteriorating systems

When the water main busted a year ago, Montgomery County, which purchases drinking water from Dayton, worked with the city to find the leak in a large pipe in the Great Miami River. About 150 million gillions of treated water spilled into the river.

City officials allege Sidney-based Eagle Bridge Co., which Montgomery County hired to replace the Keowee Bridge, is responsible for the water main break. Dayton’s lawyers sent a demand letter to Eagle Bridge and its insurance company last June, seeking damages of $1.5 million in lost water, emergency response and increased utility costs. Eagle Bridge officials have denied the city’s allegations. City officials have declined to comment on the status of the filing.

Most sewer and water infrastructure across the country — including Dayton and Montgomery County — was built 50 to 100 years ago and has started to deteriorate. The American Society of Civil Engineers says Ohio needs nearly $30 billion over 20 years for its drinking water and sewer infrastructure.

The majority of the county’s pipes have surpassed their life expectancy, said Krishnakumar V. Nedunuri, a Central State professor of environmental engineering working with the county. The water quality also is different now, he said, and contains different treatment chemicals than it did 50-plus years ago when most of the pipes were installed. That contributes to corroding pipes.

Related: Drinking water safety: Lessons Ohio and Dayton can learn from other states

Many of the old sewer and water lines were made of cast iron, he said, which corrodes faster. Many communities, including Montgomery County, have been installing ductile iron pipes, which are built to last 100 years — twice as long as cast iron, said Patrick Turnbull, Montgomery County’s environmental services director.

Municipalities such as Dayton and Montgomery County must do all they can to begin replacing the water infrastructure, Nedunuri said. Failing to do so could make the drinking water system susceptible to contaminants.

Costly repairs

Maintaining the old pipes also has started to be costly. In Montgomery County, water main breaks are increasing, said Brianna Wooten, director of communications. The county has averaged 340 water main breaks per year, costing about $2 million. Last year the number of breaks peaked at 370, she said.

On average, Montgomery County spends about $6,000 for each water main break repair, she said. Additionally, taxpayers currently pay about $2 million on water and sewer line replacements annually, county officials said.

Water main breaks are unavoidable, particularly given the age of the infrastructure, CSU researches said, cautioning that age isn’t the only factor that causes pipes to break. Major temperature swings during frigid weather and Mother Nature contribute.

Nationally, 240,000 water main breaks occur per year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Communities lose 6 billion gallons of clean water as a result of the breaks and leaks in old pipes that often goes unnoticed. Aside from the repair costs, communities lose millions of dollars of spilled treated water, said Ramanitharan Kandiah, an environmental engineering professor at Central State.

New technology

The county has implemented an asset management plan to identify which problems to address first, as mandated by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The plan requires the county to prioritize water and sewer lines based on likelihood of failure, the amount of people that will be impacted if there’s a failure and other factors, Turnbull said.

“An asset management system in the utility world is really about making the condition of the system, especially the part of the system that’s buried, visible so that you can make those informed decisions,” he said.

To help them carry out the asset management plan, the county enlisted CSU’s engineering students to install sensors on water and sewer lines as part of a two-year, $400,000 agreement, said Subramania Sritharan, professor of water resource management.

Related: We have 1.5 trillion gallons of drinking water. Are we keeping it safe?

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The sensors measure water quality and quantity, and assess the condition of the pipes. The sensors also allow the county to monitor the aging pipes to gauge the likelihood of failure and other factors, Sritharan and his colleagues said.

The county also can detect when water pressure is low in certain areas, when the quantity and quality start to deteriorate and overflow issues, Nedunuri said.

Updating Montgomery County’s entire system would cost $3.1 billion. It doesn’t have that kind of money on hand and has other areas that need attention. It’s also impractical to overhaul 2,600 miles of pipes — twice the distance between Dayton to El Paso, Texas — at once. So using the sensors is a smart approach to addressing the aging water and sewer infrastructure issue, Nedunuri said.

“We can’t change all pipes at the same time, so this model really helps to identify the hot spots in the critical areas where we have … problems,” he said.

Turnbull agreed, saying the county has used the data from the sensors and Central State students to compile a list of 22 capital projects that it will work on this year as part of the commissioners’ five-year infrastructure plan. Those projects include various water main and lift station replacements, reservoir upgrades and lift station replacements.

One of the major projects county officials hope to take on this year is related to the Western Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Carrollton. They refer to it as the Sewer Modernization and Replacement Tunnel — SMART — project. At a cost of up to $85 million, it’s the county’s largest-ever infrastructure reinvestment project from a financial standpoint, Turnbull said. Construction is expected to get underway between July and September if all goes as planned.

When construction begins, crews will replace a large sewer line in tunnels that lead to the Western Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is used by 80,000 people, Wooten and Turnbull said.

It’s not clear at this time how long the project will last, as engineers are still in the planning phase. But it will likely take multiple years to complete, Turnbull said.

Paying for the upgrades

The $750 million over five years that Montgomery County commissioners approved is a fraction of what’s needed to address the infrastructure issue. But it’s a necessary first step to begin chipping away at a massive problem, Turnbull said.

The projects will be paid for by rate hikes. A 14% increase went into effect in 2018, followed by 5.6% last year. Rate increases of 5.6% also are scheduled for this year and the next two years. In total, customers will see a 36.4% increase in their water and sewer bills.

Related: ‘Nearly catastrophic’ break a glimpse of vulnerabilities to area’s water

For several years, commissioners didn’t increase rates because of the sagging economy, Wooten said. But now that the economy is humming, she said it’s the right time to address the water and sewer infrastructure upgrades.

“Nobody ever wants to see higher costs, but by reinvesting in our infrastructure, our commissioners have said to the public, ‘Having a high quality infrastructure is very important to us,’” Turnbull said. “It’s going to cost more, but the reason why we’re doing that is so we can reinvest in the community and reinvest in the infrastructure here.”

At the same time, water consumption has decreased 2% annually in the past decade, Turnbull said, in part due to more efficient plumbing fixtures, appliances and industries. The Miami Valley region’s population also has stagnated, so he said that means fewer customers share the cost of maintaining the county’s more than 2,600 miles of water and sewer lines.

“Everybody in the United States wonders where the bottom is right from a water consumption standpoint,” Turnbull said. “Is it going to continue to trend downward, or is it at some point going to stabilize? If you look at Europe as a guide, Europe is significantly lower than the United States from a water consumption standpoint. And they’re still seeing decreases. So we don’t really know where that bottom is.”

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