Lines another Village water issue
- Published: May 16, 2013
While the village debates the question of whether to source the fresh water supply from the local well field or pipe it in from Springfield, a different and entirely separate issue is also in need of attention. The distribution system, which is the complex web of underground water lines of various size, age and make, is in need of an upgrade. The urgency of the repairs depends on who is talking about them. But according to Village consultant engineer and local resident John Eastman, unless two major connector lines are installed, several parts of the village are at risk of inadequate water flow to fight fires, including the Antioch College campus, the southern business district and the entire downtown area.
But according to Village Manager Laura Curliss, with its current water rates, the Village is already having difficulty paying for the existing water system. So even without the cost of the water line upgrades, Curliss is recommending that the Village immediately raise the water rate from the current $4.55 per 1,000 gallons to $6 per 1,000 gallons. With the additional cost of the two connectors, estimated to be in the vicinity of $1.5–$2 million, the Village would likely need to raise the water rates again.
Both the upgrade and the potential cost increase for the water distribution system are separate from the need and the cost to replace the Village’s aging water treatment plant. Regardless of whether the Village chooses to have its own plant or buy water from the city of Springfield, the issues with the distribution system should be dealt with as soon as possible, according to several experts in the field.
“To me these two pieces of pipe are critical [for fire safety] no matter what,” Eastman said. “Whether we keep our well field or go with Springfield water is a totally separate issue — let’s not mix those two issues together in the discussion.”
Village Council will discuss the water distribution system at their meeting on May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Bryan Center, where Eastman will present a study about the bottlenecks and give a preliminary cost estimate to install the two connector lines.
Current state of the system
Adequate fire flow in the village has been an issue since the 1980s, when the problem was identified by a safety study conducted by the Village, Curliss said. The Village made one major improvement in 2009 when it replaced the water main on Walnut and Short streets, significantly increasing water flow to the downtown area and Mills Lawn School. But, according to Eastman, modern standards recommend even more fire flow to commercial and business areas than the current configuration allows. The overall problem of substandard fire flow has been a long time in the making.
According to Eastman, the village’s original water distribution system was built by Antioch College in the early 1920s to draw water through a four-inch line from the Yellow Spring up Glen Street, down Xenia Avenue and splintering off to Davis, Livermore and the College streets. The Village bought the system from the college in 1926 and created a well field at Ellis Park, then a few decades later moved the well and built its first water tower near none other than Tower Court. Then in 1964 the Village moved the well field to the south edge of town and built a new water treatment plant at its current location on Jacoby Road.
The Village kept adding new water lines bit by bit to accommodate a growing population. The resulting 30-mile network of lines range in size from 2-inch to 16-inch lines in a mix of cast iron, galvanized iron and plastic, most of which are original.
The problem of adequate fire flow only became apparent over time as the system developed. According to Eastman, for residential areas, the ability to pump 1,000–1,500 gallons of water per minute is considered adequate fire flow; for commercial areas with larger buildings and sometimes higher density, the need is much greater at around 2,500–3,000 gallons per minute (gpm). But because there are just a few small lines connecting the northern half of the village to everything south of Herman Street, for high flow needs, the north end is served largely by the gravity-fed water towers, while the south end is served by the motorized pumps at the water treatment plant. The configuration results in just 2,000 gpm maximum flow for the southern commercial district, 1,500 gpm for much of the downtown commercial district (including Mills Lawn), and between 500 and 1,500 gpm for much of the college campus area — all of which is insufficient for safety needs, according to both Eastman and Miami Township Fire Chief Colin Altman.
To fix the bottlenecks, Eastman’s consulting firm LJB Engineering recommended constructing a new main along Xenia Avenue from YSI to Herman and west to the water towers. The line would “dramatically improve” fire flow to the downtown as well as the southern business district and areas all along Dayton Street. He also recommended constructing a second main, known as the Corry-Livermore connector, from the downtown along Corry Street to North College and down Livermore to achieve adequate flow for the college.
“In my mind both of these are important — independent of any decision about where we source our water — these are things that are needed by the community,” Eastman said.
A much smaller “bottleneck” exists at the north end of King Street, constricting water flow to the 30 or so homes in the neighborhood between Robinwood Drive and Fairfield Pike to less than 500 gpm. The flow is inadequate for fire safety, and Eastman recommends extending an existing line from its north end on King Street out to Robinwood.
A leaky system, badly metered
In addition to bottlenecks, the Village is also plagued by aging water meters and regular breaks in older or inferior water mains, which leads to a high level of unmetered water that no one is paying for, according to Village Water Distribution Superintendent Kelley Fox. In a healthy system, the difference between the water the Village pumps out of the water plant and the water it collects at the wastewater treatment plant should be about equal or within 15 percent of each other. Currently however the Village is logging an unmetered water “loss” of between 40 to 50 percent of the water it pumps from the plant.
Eastman suspects that because a good portion of the Village water meters have not been replaced in a timely manner, much of the “loss” is likely due to water that users aren’t being billed for because it isn’t registering on their meters, he said. Of the village’s 1,800 residential and commercial meters, Curliss estimates that 1,500 are “aging out” at up to 20 years and should be replaced. The Village plans to replace the current manual-read meters with radio-read meters that can transmit remotely and record information such as when a leak started.
Some of it could also be due to undetected line breaks. Breaks and tears occur every year, mostly due to freezing temperatures, but also from lines that aren’t buried deep enough (as in the nearly 65 homes in the Fair Acres neighborhood between Polecat and Fairfield Pike) or those made with inferior materials, which occur randomly around the village. Many breaks are visible, bringing water to the surface, flooding yards or streets and demanding immediate repair. But some breaks leak underground and are only perceptible if a water plant gauge or a local resident notices low water pressure in the system. Every few years the Village engages an audio leak detection service to locate the leaks, and each year the Village budgets about $10–$15,000 to fix them, Fox said.
But according to Curliss, without the kind of comprehensive system analysis that the Village’s wastewater treatment plant received in 2011 with the EPA’s Capacity, Management, Operation, and Maintenance (CMOM) program, the Village can’t know the exact state of its entire distribution system. So the best they can hope to do is repair the breaks when they occur and improve the overall flow of the system.
Cost of improvements
All of the major improvements needed for the water distribution system come with a cost. The cost of the Xenia Avenue connector is estimated to be around $800,000, according to Curliss. The Corry Street-Livermore connector could cost the same or more due to the bedrock along parts of Corry Street that may have to be perforated, Eastman said. The cost of replacing the lines in Fair Acres is estimated to be around $980,000, according to Curliss. Replacing the aging water meters with radio meters (which have a 20-year lifetime gaurantee) would cost at least $300,000, Curliss said. And installing a larger line to the Robinwood area would be an additional cost to put in the Village budget.
Many of the current problems with the distribution system have taken decades to develop, and therefore have not been perceived as urgent, Curliss said. And with constant other demands on the municipal budget, the Village has continued to defer the capital costs of water system maintenance and improvements. But according to Eastman, it’s only because the village hasn’t had a major fire that the decision to delay repairs has worked out.
“It’s false reasoning to say that we’ve been lucky so far, so we don’t have to do anything about it,” he said.
Fox has seen the same problems with the system since he started with the Village 30 years ago, he said. He tells the Village what he sees, but he doesn’t make the decisions, he said. According to Curliss, puting off maintenance projects is not just fiscally wasteful, it also tempts fate.
“If there’s a fire in the downtown tomorrow, you’ll be kicking yourself — it’s ‘How lucky to do you feel today?’” she said.
One reason distribution system costs seem so daunting today is the unsolved problem of the Village’s aging water plant. The Village has been discussing for several years the options to upgrade the existing plant for a 20-year life, which Eastman estimated earlier this year could cost around $1.2 million. The Village is also considering the option of building a pipe from the Village to the Clark County line to bring in water from Springfield, a project Eastman estimated could cost about $1.9 million, if Springfield agreed to cover its part of the pipeline. According to Village Water Superintendent Joe Bates, maintaining the status quo is not a viable option, due to failing parts on the current plant and the brown manganese water being out of EPA compliance.
The Village water fund is an enterprise fund that is supposed to be self-supporting, according to Curliss. So while some of the capital costs could conceivably come from Ohio Public Works Commission grants, whatever is left would need to be financed through municipal low-interest loans and paid back through additional increases in the water rates, she said. (The Village water rates, currently $4.55 per 1,000 gallons, are on a gradual increase schedule to top out at $4.70 per 1,000 gallons by 2014.)
Even though the costs seem large, Curliss believes that spending the money now is more efficient than paying to manage a crisis and then paying again to repair the resulting damages.
“Uncomfortable decisions need to be made in a timely manner to put improvements in place before a crisis happens,” Curliss said. “A non-planned approach to managing assets is very stressful for us as a government — it’s stressful for citizens, too.”