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ANALYSIS: Philly leads in some areas of infrastructure improvement, falters in others

At 21st and Bainbridge in Graduate Hospital, a sinkhole now sits where a water main break occurred over two weeks ago, revealing an impressive array of underground utility layers, yet representing unfortunate issues with Philly’s aging water pipes.  Adding insult to injury, four more water main breaks have since occurred across Philly, leaving many to wonder just how serious the City’s aging infrastructure problems are. 

When disruptions like this occur, they act as a wakeup call to the importance of sound water utilities in our day-to-day lives.  And on a broader scale, they showcase the need for collective investment in our city’s infrastructure to ensure high quality of life for residents and competitiveness in a modern economy.  In this regard, Philly leads the way on a number of fronts yet falters in others. 
It Happens: Water Mains Break
Wondering why water main’s break to begin with?  Blame the hot temperatures, says Joanne Dahme, Philadelphia Water Department's (PWD) general manager of public affairs.  “For larger pipes, such as transmission mains, it’s the warmer water temperatures inside the pipe that causes the pipe materials to expand. Couple this with higher water usage in the summer and we see additional stress on the pipe,” she explains.  This summer’s particularly hot weather is the likely culprit for the additional stress on the mains. 
But main breaks in Philly can also be explained by the infrastructure’s age: being one of America’s oldest and earliest developed cities, the condition and efficiency of its infrastructure requires constant attention and maintenance.  According to Dahme, the average age of water lines in Philly is 67 years old, with typical life expectancies of 100-120 years.  Some pipes in and around Center City date back to as early as 1824.  The age factor, coupled with the sheer amount of water mains in the City (over 6,000 miles of water, sewer, and stormwater pipes mains exist in Philadelphia proper) and you’re going to see water mains break.  It’s science.
Something needs to be done
For years now Philly has recognized the need to upgrade its aging utilities for a number of reasons beyond the recent wave of water main breaks.  On a national scale, as populations continues to urbanize, water utilities have been faced with new environmental, demographic, and financial challenges.  As these trends accelerate, at stake are safe and affordable water supplies; proper storm and wastewater treatment; flood protection; and clean rivers and streams.  From a stormwater mitigation perspective, Philadelphia already has done quite a lot.   
A Local Example has Become National Model for Improving Infrastructure

In recent history, the Philadelphia region was at a major crossroads: in sight of degraded waterways and under very real budget constraints to do much about it, the City then faced potentially budget-crippling mandates from state and federal governments to upgrade and improve its old sewer systems.  Enter the Green City, Clean Waters initiative, Philadelphia's 25-year plan to protect and enhance watersheds by managing stormwater with green infrastructure.

Instead of building its way out of the problem through the construction of costly underground infrastructure and utilities, through the Green City, Clean Waters initiative, the City used the mandate as an opportunity to plan for and implement innovative ‘green’ techniques on a citywide scale.  The way the City saw it, greening strategies invests public monies in a much smarter way and stands to benefit residents through increased open space, all the while meeting ecological restoration mandates. 
Through a fleet of watershed planning initiatives, natural habitat restoration, greening out those pesky grayfields, and the largest Green Stormwater Infrastructure Program this country has seen, Philly has been fighting the good fight for a more sustainable future, saving billions in the process.
To date, all of the planning has turned into tangible results: over 200 improvements have been implemented across the City, ranging from stormwater tree trenches, porous paving projects, green roofs, wetlands, rain gardens, and a host of other green improvements.  All of these tools do two things: meets federal mandates through reducing runoff volume and filter pollutants before entering the combined sewers and helps solve the city’s aging infrastructure by reducing strain on the system.    

Nationally, Green City, Clean Waters has been lauded for its vision and action-oriented progress.  The fight has become a national model for how cities can use these policies to combat budget and environmental constraints.  Locally, it is a reminder that investing in infrastructure is a must but that it doesn’t have to break the bank and can be completed in smart, innovative ways.

Similar Thinking Needed on Water Mains

PWD has recently started using a new technology for leak detection on its larger system pipes, and plans on expanding this program in the future.  This joins extensive leak detection and quality protection measures already in place to ensure a high level of service while minimizing the amount of main breaks. 

And despite the recent outbreak, Dahme suggests that PWD’s efforts are working.  “In the past year (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012), Philadelphia experienced its third lowest number of main breaks,” she notes.  On top of this, Dahme says the city is well below the national average for main breaks.  “There are roughly 240 breaks per 1,000 miles of water main pipe in the city.  The national average from the American Water Works Association is 270 water main breaks per 1,000 miles of pipe.” 

But as the sinkhole at 21st and Bainbridge continues to fester, it acts as a reminder that we must collectively invest in our public utilities now, or risk pushing more expensive fixes onto future generations of Philadelphians.  Considering that current demographic trends point towards the City adding population over the coming years, causing increased strain on water mains- the time to invest is now.  Dahme believes that to do otherwise could be catastrophic to the budget, ratepayers, and the City’s ability to properly function in a modern economy. “The more infrastructure dollars we have - through rates or federal grants - the more we can positively impact our future.” 

Source: Joanne Dahme, Philadelphia Water Department
Writer: Greg Meckstroth
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