Avoiding a crisis with Portland's aging pipe system

7:18 PM, Nov 15, 2013   |    comments
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PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- The City of Portland, the Water District and organizations like Friends of Casco Bay say people need to understand why our rates are steadily increasing.

A plan to overhaul the fatigued and sometimes faulty system of pipes that carries waste and drinking water is underway. The price tag? $250 million. Every cent comes out of water and sewer fees that you pay. But City leaders say it is the only way to avoid a crisis.

"It'd be a lot more outages, a lot less water quality," says Chris Crovo of the Portland Water District. "Because of main breaks and those types of things. So the whole point is not to go down that road."

The District is spending $35 million over the next five years and will likely continue spending $7 million a year until 2023. That's in addition to regular operating costs and unplanned projects like these. It makes annual rate increases of 2-5%.

Problems with the sewer system are even more distressing. The system was expanded piecemeal over 200 years. Before the sewage treatment plant was put in in 1979, a mere 34 years ago, raw sewage flowed out into Casco Bay and other waterways. In some areas ... it still does.

When it rains hard, the system reverts back to what's known as combined sewer overflows or CSO's which are designed to keep overflow from backing up into storm drains and homes. But those overflows carry to pipes and gates that still release stormwater and sewage straight into the bay.

"Nobody wants poop in the water!," City Engineer Kathi Earley says emphatically.

So the City has begun a 15-year, $170 million program to revamp the system, do away with most CSO's and better route the waste to the treatment plant. It will require steadily rising sewer rates, which are already among the highest in the region.

Public Works Director Mike Bobinsky says it enables Portland to avoid federal fines under the Clean Water Act, prevent illness and shellfish contamination, and maintain a good reputation.

"That attracts and retains business," says Bobinsky, "when you have a city that agrees with those kinds of investiments and that really wants to be sustainable in the long term busineses want to stay here as well."

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