Early in 2012, I asked John Carman, the director for Raleigh’s Public Utilities, what the plan was to ensure the orderly replacement of the city’s $10.5 billion in water and sewer infrastructure. A lack of proper maintenance had recently produced an increase in downtown “geysers” for various U.S. cities as aging waterlines failed in spectacular fashion.
A bit to my surprise, Carman said there was no such plan. In short, the city did not have a complete picture of where all of its pipes and lines were located, how old they were and what they were made of. Without this information, Public Utilities could not produce a reliable replacement schedule.
While Public Utilities has worked diligently to stay ahead of our aging infrastructure, breaks in waterlines and sewer pipes have been frequent and costly. For example, a break in a sewer pipe near the Glenwood Avenue bridge over Crabtree Creek cost the city $250,000 in emergency repairs.
In addition to preventing a disruption in service, greater predictability of the year-to-year maintenance costs is necessary to devise a better rate scheme.
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Because of my inquiry, Carman requested a complete inventory of Raleigh’s water and sewer infrastructure, which included the merger partner systems of Wake Forest, Rolesville, Wendell, Knightdale, Zebulon and Garner. The review has allowed the city to accurately identify infrastructure replacement needs based on age, condition and location.
According to this inventory, Raleigh’s oldest sewer pipe still in use was installed in 1874. Clearly, the city needs to buy more of this type of pipe! Our oldest verified waterline was installed in 1914. It’s a 16-inch main located under Blount Street, between Martin and Davie streets. This waterline runs along Moore Square and, without proper consideration, could accidentally provide the water feature that city planners have been promoting for the park.
The contractor who completed the inventory is determining a infrastructure replacement schedule. With a solid, predictable replacement plan, the city has an opportunity to implement a flatter, fairer water rate.
The City of Raleigh spends about $15 million yearly maintaining our water-sewer infrastructure. The revenue dedicated to that maintenance comes from monthly charges on the amount of water used per household. The problem with this model is that when water usage drops, so do revenues.
Councilor John Odom has said that we are in the water-selling business – and under the current rate scheme, he’s right. The problem here isn’t Odom, but rather the way we look at water in Raleigh. Raleigh and its neighbors should be buying a service, not a commodity.
Water is a finite resource, but we do not treat it that way. The City of Raleigh encourages households to conserve water, but when they do, that means less money for infrastructure needs. So you are “rewarded” for conserving water with a increase in your water rate. This model works against the goals of water conservation and a predictable household budget.
A more sensible water-rate model starts with a reliable infrastructure-replacement schedule. With better predictability of infrastructure needs, a rate that pays for a service and not a commodity can be implemented. Using an averaged water usage rate, Public Utilities would have a steady revenue stream for infrastructure, and our residents would have greater predictability of their water rate from month to month and year to year.
Raleigh households typically use about 500 cubic feet of water per month, which would be used to calculate a flat rate. Anyone using more would encounter higher fees, which would be targeted at increasing system capacity.
Although the work is ongoing, the cost for implementing this model is very close to what we currently spend for water and sewer. Without the city having to “sell” water, residents will no longer be penalized for conserving it. Steady water rates, water conservation and no downtown geysers – this would be a winning water strategy for the residents of Raleigh.
Randall K. Stagner is a former Raleigh City Council member.
The year Raleigh’s oldest sewer pipe still in use was installed
The year the oldest verified waterline was installed – a 16-inch main under Blount Street, between Martin and Davie streets:
‘This waterline runs along Moore Square and,
without proper consideration, could accidentally provide the water feature that city planners have been promoting for the park.’