Work crews replacing the old water mains beneath Stacy Boulevard have made the first forays into a project that will replace nearly five miles of pipe from the Boulevard up though neighborhoods off Centennial Avenue.
It's the most recent phase of the city's water system repairs, a $7.5 million project that replaces some of the city's oldest water lines in city's water distribution system and will run through the summer and into the fall.
But those five miles, six months and $7.5 million won't scratch the surface of Gloucester's water infrastructure needs, city officials say.
Actually, it meets less than a tenth of it, said Public Works Director, Mike Hale.
There are 60-70 miles of pipe at the end of their life span, today. Those pipes aren't broken, Hale said, but they're at risk of breaking. Fixing them, if you figure $7.5 million for four or so miles, could cost over $100 million. That doesn't include repairs to sewer lines and pump stations that are past their time, Hale added; those repairs, he said, would cost about the same.
"It doesn't matter what size community you're looking at," Hale said. "No one can afford to invest the way they want to invest. A five to fifteen year capital project would be more than the rate (and ratepayers) could support."
The city, he said, can't keep up with regular maintenance and replacement, let alone state and federally mandated projects.
Gloucester homeowners and businesses, like those in other cities and towns across the state can't keep up with water and sewer infrastructure costs without help from state and federal governments, according to the state Water Infrastructure Finance Commission's report released in February.
Looking at the next 20 years, the commission found a $10.2 billion funding gap in drinking water resources statewide, and an $11.2 billion gap in resources for clean water projects. The gap estimation examined projected rate revenues over 20 years, minus capital needs projected by the Environmental Protection Agency and estimated increases in operation and maintenance costs.
The commission found that aging systems in need of repair and investment, combined with environmental and public health regulations on municipal water and sewer systems are the main causes of the funding gaps.
"Municipalities and districts are angry that the brunt of the cost is being borne at the local level by taxpayers or ratepayers, when the benefits have state and national significance," the report states.
Cities and towns, the report states, are seeing growing debt as a result of utility costs and capital needs, while federal and state funding sources are trending downward, exacerbated by the recession, and water and sewer rates, across the state, the report said, aren't fully able to proved for the cost of operating the plants.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Wednesday that the city has invested strongly in water infrastructure and sewer infrastructure since the 1990s, after what seemed like decades of kicking the repair can down the road.
After the DEP's infamous 2009 Gloucester boil water order, the city's Public Works Department undertook three phases of upgrades to the water system, totaling about $25 million. Including the Combined Sewer Overflow stormwater and sanitary sewer separation, and state mandated upgrades to the Wastewater treatment plant, the city spent $55 million in sewer repairs over the last few years.
The city's water rate, however, hit $8.75 per 1,000 gallons last year, and is expected to hit $9 per 1,000 gallons before the end of the year. Sewer is $10.98 per 1,000 gallons. With the current projects, the rates are expected to rise.
Gloucester, said City Councilor and former mayor Bruce Tobey, has assessed its needs, is meeting them, and paying through the water rate.
That, he added, is what communities are supposed to do. At the moment, the city's in better shape than a lot of other municipalities who haven't done that.
A municipal water system has to be continuously maintained, he said, and the city's problems, he said, came from putting it off to the next generation — the current one. But, he said, federal and state regulations, like CSO and the unresolved $40 million to $60 million Secondary Treatment mandate by the EPA, don't help.
"The tragedy is that the law requires but does very little at the federal and state level to help pay for it," Tobey said.
Kirk said the state and federal Government have to provide some support for infrastructure because the rate- and taxpayers alone can't handle it.
"It's the ratepayer, the homeowner, the taxpayer, the citizen." Kirk said. "That's who's paying for it."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.