News that Lawrence will begin to improve water flow to all parts of the city is welcome. However, the project’s $23.8 million price tag illustrates the high cost of deferring routine maintenance.
Six months ago, fire destroyed three homes on Hancock Street as firefighters struggled with poor water flow from nearby hydrants. Firefighters were unable to get sufficient water from nearby hydrants, including a new one adjacent to the burning homes. They had to resort to a pump relay from the closest working hydrants.
The City Council this week voted to borrow $23.8 million from the state to clear the rust in 130 miles of water pipes, some of which have not been cleaned in as long as 75 years. In some cases, the openings in the 8-inch pipes have been reduced to pinholes.
The council voted 7-0 in favor of the borrowing. Councilor Marc Laplante abstained and Councilor Eileen Bernal was absent.
“There’s nothing as frustrating as realizing when you tie into a hydrant that you don’t have the water available and the fire is burning out of control,” fire Chief Jack Bergeron told the council.
The pipe cleaning is necessary to preserve public safety in the city. Firefighters need ample water to put out fires. If the city’s infrastructure cannot deliver that water, then people and neighborhoods are at risk.
The March 30 fire on Hancock Street easily could have been much worse. As it was, the fire displaced three families. But it also threatened the nearby Hennessey and Guilmette schools.
Water and sewer chief Robert Fazio says the loan can be repaid without raising rates. The water and sewer budget is running a surplus that is expected to grow to $9 million. Water rates have not been raised since 2009 and should remain flat through 2019.
That’s good news for customers. But the water line repairs nonetheless come with a hefty bill. That’s a consequence of having spent next to nothing to maintain the lines since their installation. Sooner or later, the piper must be paid.
Except when leaks erupt, the city’s water pipes have been largely neglected since they were installed as the city was developed between 1873 and 1890, acting Public Works Director John Isensee told the council.
“The water lines have not been cleared in a meaningful way in 75 years,” he said. “Since then, maintenance has focused on downtown, so (pipes serving) a lot of the neighborhoods have never been cleared.”
Some of the pipe-cleaning work has begun. The city cleared some 2,700 feet of pipes under Park Street. The cleaning increased water flow from 459 gallons per minute to more than 2,700 feet per minute.
Water problems have plagued Lawrence for years and firefighters have been warning political leaders about the risks to the city until they went blue in the face. Now, the work is finally about to be done.
It will be the responsibility of future generations of Lawrence leaders to keep the situation from getting so bad again.