Water main breaks increase with pipes' age

County works on prevention plan

MIAMI - Many water and sewer lines in South Florida are in need of repair, but utilities said they simply do not have enough money to fix them.

Miami-Dade County's Water and Sewer Department is the largest in the southeastern United States. Its deputy director, Douglas Yoder, said there have been some dramatic ruptures in South Florida in recent months, including a sewer spill in Hollywood in November and a Christmas Eve water main fiasco in Fort Lauderdale.

The majority of Miami-Dade County's system is more than 50 years old. The lifespan of a pipe varies depending on what is flowing through it, where it is located and possible human error. Yoder said there have been failures in pipes that are 30 to 40 years old because there were some flaws in their original construction.

Raw Interview: Douglas Yoder

Fixing the problem requires money, which can be hard to come by. Utilities nationwide are feeling the pinch from higher operating and regulatory costs paired with decreasing revenues as more people use less water. That is great for conservation, but bad for a budget already reeling from cuts, experts said.

For its size, Miami-Dade County is the second least expensive in the country, but raising rates is never popular, especially in today's economic climate.

Yoder said that prevention is always cheaper than treatment, as was evident in a recent water main break in Hialeah. He said it cost $2 million to repair an intersection destroyed by the break, but replacing the section of pipe that caused the mess would have cost $60,000 before the break.

Yoder said the county is working on a plan to assess which pipes need fixing or replacement and how much it will cost.

Miami-Dade County's woes are a microcosm of what is happening nationwide. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the country's sewer system a D-minus grade.

"The latest report shows that our nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is aging and overburdened, and that investment is not keeping up with the need," the ACSE stated in a 2009 report.

Like Yoder, the ASCE said investing money into preventative maintenance before a burst would save taxpayers more money in the long run because the economic losses, both public and private, are much greater following a rupture.

Meanwhile, Alan Garcia, the director of Broward County's Water and Wastewater Services, told Local 10 that Broward County commissioners have "fully funded all year's capital and operating requests. Those include $42.9 million for fiscal year 2009, 19.3 million for fiscal year 2010 and $26.3 million for fiscal year 2011, all from the capital budgets, to replace aging infrastructure in Broward County.

"We have approximately 6,611,000 feet of pipe with about 3 percent greater than 50 years old," Garcia said.

Garcia said the county general considers 50 years to be about the time it considers replacing a pipe.

"With the newer pipe, say after 1990, we are considering a 60-year life, unless specific data for that pipe says otherwise," Garcia said. "In addition, we have spent approximately $3 million per year on pipe breaks in 2010 and 2011 from our operating budget."

Click here for information on pipe ages in Broward County.

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