The recent water main break in Worcester highlights the importance of our underground infrastructure. It is vitally important, but hidden from sight and often forgotten. Water mains bring clean water to your homes, businesses, schools, restaurants, and many other places you, your family and friends use daily. They provide for a basic need and are as important as highways, bridges and schools to our communities and economy. So why don’t they receive the same amount of attention as these other critical pieces of the fabric of our communities? And why isn’t the backlog of tens of billions of dollars in maintenance and upgrades of water systems being addressed with the same sense of urgency as is currently the case with highways, bridges and schools? Some people attribute this failure to lack of money and too many competing demands on scarce community resources. Maybe it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” issue or people just don’t think it’s important. That is, until an event like Worcester’s water main break impacts the daily routine of a major city’s population, as well as business and hospital operations. Even though the break was not caused by lack of maintenance, it did shine the light of day on these hidden pipes.
On the afternoon of Monday, November 12, a huge 30-inch water main broke at Chandler and May Streets in Worcester. It immediately flooded parts of the Worcester State University campus with some 10 million gallons of water and officials had to shut off the water supply to the entire city to bring the break under control. It took more than a half day before the water main was repaired but the city was still left with discolored water, low water pressure, and a precautionary boil water advisory for two days. This is unfortunate because we expect clean water when we turn on a faucet to fill a glass and we expect the toilet will flush. We should be able to rely on our communities’ infrastructure whenever we need it.
Water main breaks are inevitable and while they cannot be completely avoided there are measures that can be taken to reduce their likelihood and lessen their impact, while benefiting the environment, economy and society:
- There needs to be significant, continuous investment in our water infrastructure. These capital expenditures need to be prioritized and based on an assessment of water system conditions, an understanding of current and future community water needs and identification of where systems are most vulnerable.
- Communities also need to take the lead in establishing fair and reasonable rates through which to pay for infrastructure improvement, while keeping water costs affordable. This may require grants from federal and state agencies. These agencies can also help by taking a break from issuing new, costly environmental regulations to further control communities.
- What we really need are 20 to 30 years of uninterrupted focus on replacing, repairing and modernizing our critical water systems without the added burden of dealing with new, costly and ever-changing environmental rules.
A reliable water system is a key ingredient to spurring economic development, providing for public safety and protecting public health. Communities, municipal officials, and people like you must advocate for clean, reliable water systems. Speak up and contact your elected officials and urge them to help your community by providing more funding for critical infrastructure upgrades and by limiting the creation of more new, costly regulations that provide little benefit to people or the environment. In the end it’s your money being spent and you should demand it be spent wisely. Let’s all work together to get the most from our hard-earned dollar by investing in our public water systems.