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As Water Infrastructure Ages And Funds Dry Up, Towns Struggle To Keep Up

Manch Water.JPG
Sam Evans-Brown

Folks working in the world of water infrastructure have a joke: if all of those pipes, and storm-drains, and treatment plants were fire trucks, they’d be kept shiny and new. But instead much of that is buried underground, or kept out of sight in industrial parks, and often out of mind. So instead, tax and sewer rate-payers don’t worry about it until it breaks. And when it breaks you’ll know about it: sinkholes in streets, and backed up sewage aren’t pretty.

New Hampshire towns are facing a huge fiscal challenge when it comes to water infrastructure. The Department of Environmental Services estimates that across the state, towns need about $1.71 billion worth of investments in wastewater, storm water, and sewer infrastructure, but different sized towns are facing different challenges.

Inside a noisy little concrete bunker at the headquarters of the Manchester Department of Environmental protection, crews are working furiously.

“This is all new equipment all in here. To the tune of about 5 million dollars,” Fred McNeill, the chief engineer for Manchester’s Wastewater Treatment plant, shouts over the construction noise. He’s showing off some new equipment that’s used to separate sand from the streets out of the water.

Stepping outside of the work zone, McNeill points to the rest of the treatment plant. “Right over there we’ve got equipment that’s been operating twenty-four-seven for thirty-seven years,” he says, “No refrigerator, no car, no radio, operates like that, it’s unrealistic to expect equipment in this environment to operate like that.”

Manchester faces the highest costs in the state in terms of upkeep. They’ve got to separate sewer and storm water pipes for $165 million, replace their entire wastewater treatment plant at $72 million, and expand their sewer network for another $25 million. All told these improvements will cost the city somewhere between $300 and $700 million dollars.

But so far, increases in the rates sewer users pay, around 5 years ago, mean they should be able to pay for the upgrades. McNeill says “The city of Manchester is a rarity in that we are on very solid financial footing.”

Water Funding Dries Up

But other towns also face big bills and those bills have been piling up as sewer and treatment plants all over the state get older and investment gets pushed back.

Since 2004 DES estimates of what towns need to spend have more than doubled. They’re looking at about the same amount of money – in today’s dollars – as when the federal Clean Water Act was first passed. It’s almost like towns are starting from scratch, as if we were still dumping raw sewage into rivers: $20 million in Meredith, $28 million in Lebanon, and $117 million in Portsmouth.

But the difference is that back in the 70s and 80s these towns – big and small – had a lot of help.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
The DES estimates don't even include some water infrastructure, like dam maintenance and drinking water improvements. This drinking water pipe was pulled out of the streets of Manchester last year, and is stamped with the date 1882

Paul Heirtzler, the administrator of wastewater engineering with the Department of Environmental Service says, “between the federal Government and the state government 95 percent of the cost of wastewater treatment facilities was provided by those entities and local governments only five percent.”

But many of those funds have dried up. Federal dollars associated with the Clean Water Act have long-since expired, and when the recession hit in 2008, the state also put a hold on the grants it provides, worth 20 percent of construction costs.

The House of Representatives budget would fully fund the 127 projects built since 2008 that qualify for those funds by 2015. But neither the House’s nor the Governor’s budget has proposed how to keep funding the grants going forward.

Many Projects Chasing Few Dollars

In the absence of those dollars, some towns cobble together money from Federal rural and community development grants. North Conway’s Waste Water superintendent Dave Bernier says that’s what his town did. They applied for as many grants as they could in the 90s, knowing that the town’s population would soon exceed the 10,000 cap on communities that are considered rural. “Well we were lucky and we were clever and we did our homework,” says Bernier.

But there is something of a donut hole. Bigger cities like Manchester might have enough rate-payers that certain upgrades are feasible. And smaller, poorer towns are eligible for more grants, and often don’t have wastewater plants to upgrade. But big towns and small cities, many concentrated on the Seacoast, are really smarting.

Some Seacoast communities have been fighting hard against requirements that they upgrade their aging plants. Earlier this year TJ Dean, the Mayor of Rochester told a state Senate committee “what we are being asked to undertake, would be very catastrophic to the rate-payers of Rochester, in fact it would double the sewer rate.”

Troubled Waters Looking Ahead

Many in the DES would like to see communities starting to put money aside in order to plan for future water needs. Though they recognize that in tough economic times, prioritizing saving for a sewer line loses out to paying teacher’s salaries.

“We hear it all the times that there’s just one checkbook in the community,” says Ted Diers, watershed coordinator at DES, “and that checkbook covers schools, and it covers water and it covers roads.”

But out in the communities, some feel that water requirements have become too stringent. Fred McNeill in Manchester says with any project the first ninety percent are the easiest to do. The last ten percent is the most difficult and the most expensive. “And that’s where we are now as clean water professionals,” McNeill concludes.

Back when the Clean Water Act was passed, the current funding structure was all part of the plan. For the first round of water treatment plants the feds would help the states out, but when it came time to replace them – apart from revolving loan funds and other scattered grants – towns were going to be on their own.

Now that decision has come due, towns across the state are finding out what clean water costs.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
DES estimates show that smaller towns mostly have storm-water improvements to make, while mid-sized towns and small cities have to spend a lot on new wastewater plants. Some cities like Manchester, Lebanon, Nashua and Portsmouth have to spend large amounts on "Combined Sewer Overflow" abatement - that is separating sewers and storm-water drains. Pictured here is the plan for Manchester's Phase II CSO abatement

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