January 2020 – sewage in the streets. December 2019 – sewage in the streets. November 2019 – sewage in the streets. Over 100 million gallons of raw sewage flow into the Venice of the New World’s waterways in 3 months. And three water main breaks to start February 2020. What is going on in Fort Lauderdale? It is bad materials, bad engineering, bad construction, growth? The answer is why infrastructure is getting such a poor grade in the US.
Many of the gravity mains in Fort Lauderdale are vitrified clay, installed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Those lines have a tendency to crack and allow groundwater into the pipe – infiltration. And the City has an issue with this as does virtually every city with clay pipes and a lot with pvc as well. And a lot of water flows off the streets through manhole covers (30 gpm), broken cleanouts, bad laterals, interconnections with storm drains and people creating openings to drain their yard. That is inflow and most cities have an issue with this because they focus more on infiltration. That latter is easier to address.
But the gravity lines are not what is causing the sewage spills. That would be the cast and ductile iron force mains installed at the same time as the sewer lines. Ductile iron is a great pipe materials, but when exposed to hydrogen sulfide, damage can occur. Put it in acidic or salty soils and corrosion is accelerated. And breaks occur – especially near where these iron pipes connect o gravity lines and no longer flow full. The example repeats everywhere in every community over time.
It is also not bad engineering or construction. Cast/ductile and vitrified clay piping were the materials recommended for installation at the time – plastic pipes were not in general use and the C900 and high density polyethylene pipes we use today had not been invented.
It is also not growth although more sewage being pumped adds to wear. But the sewage is old customers, new customers, inflow and infiltration – which one is the tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell would say, is unclear (read the book if you are not familiar with tippling pints – fascinating). The combination is problematic.
The problem also is not going away – in fact expect it to accelerate as pipes reach their life. There are many more pipes like these in Fort Lauderdale. Nearly 50% are pre-1970. That is not atypical nationwide. The City has a consultant that suggested about $150 million in force main upgrades/replacements are needed. The SunSentinel published a map of the problem areas identified by consultants. They also noted that after 2011, the City diverted funds to the general fund from the water/sewer fund to cover lost revenues from property devaluation to avoid raising property taxes. That was money that was paid by water and sewer customers, not necessarily taxpayers. Robbing the utility to fix general fund issues sounds like About $20 million per year is what the local officials say. The papers report as much as $100 (in 2017). Even if the number is the lower $20 million per year is correct, it still sounds like a lot of deferred maintenance issues could have been addressed in the past 9 years.
The situation is not just Fort Lauderdale’s – they are this year’s poster child for pipe neglects. St. Petersburg was a couple years back (2015/2016). Miami Dade County before that. Nearby cities like Hollywood and Pompano Beach, both with similarly aged pipes, have had their challenges in the past 5 years. Nationwide the trend sis pipes hit 50 years on the wastewater side and something needs to be done. Pipe does not last forever. Diverting funds to the general fund, something s that was noticeably different after 2010, needs to change. The general funds need to pay back the utilities for those borrowed funds. A tough choice for local officials. Something residents need to understand.
Regulation is also not the answer and fines is not the answer for cash-strapped communities. Solutions to help get funding in place and evaluation pipes that have not yet broken is a better solution. All utilities will need to upgrade their infrastructure. Current residents will pay the cost – they are using the system. New residents will pay impact fees and assessments as well. These systems have remained buried with few worries beyond the life of most residents but as ASCE’s Infrastructure Report cards show, not doing your homework will cause community infrastructure to fail the test.
At the same time, utilities need to be honest about condition. Public trust is everything. Failure is not an option. But failure to convince local officials there is a potential problem endangers that trust, something Fort Lauderdale is currently dealing with.
The good news was that in Feb 2020, the projection was for utilities to spend over $11 billion for water, sere and stormwater related infrastructure improvements. Half that was for sewer. Let’s hope the coronavirus does not derail this goal.