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A water main break on Goffe Street in Manchester, courtesy Fred McNeill

Jun 18, 2015 12:34 PM

Dover struggles with old pipes, many communities face similar challenge


DOVER – The cave-in on Rutland Street on Friday was caused by a crack in a 6-inch water main that dates back to 1888.

And while that break was fixed, public works officials are still hoping to identify other breaks that are causing the city to lose water – as much as 500,000 gallons a day.

“We’re focusing our attention around Silver Street,” said Bill Belanger, superintendent of public works and utilities for the city. That’s where most of the more than century-old pipe is located.

Besides visually scanning areas for evidence of water seepage, the city also uses special recording devices at night that are capable of registering the sound of a leak. But with only eight devices for many miles of pipeline, it takes time, Belanger said.

Dover’s problem with aging and leaking water pipes is not unique to the city.

Many N.H. cities and towns have aging underground pipes. A statewide analysis estimates the cost of addressing the unmet needs for N.H.’s water systems at $857 million over 10 years.

And that’s just for clean water. Maintaining and updating sewer systems would cost more than double that amount, according to a 2012 study by the N.H. Water Sustainability Commission.

Many of the water and sewer treatment systems date back to the 1970s when the federal government provided as much as 90 cents for every dollar that communities spent on water and sewer projects.

The goal was for communities to set aside money over time to maintain and upgrade these systems. That didn’t happen in many communities where tax or fee increases were unpopular.

Now these deferred expenses are catching up with communities. Not only does that mean unexpected water shut-offs for homes and businesses as emergency repairs are made, the leaks can trigger sinkholes that close roads or require evacuations.

Perhaps the biggest sinkhole is to taxpayer wallets. Repairs and upgrades are expensive. Rural N.H. residents have their own wells or septic systems so water and sewer systems tend to serve only village centers or more populated areas. That leaves fewer people to bear these costs.

In Dover, the water system is paid for by the 8,200 customers receiving services. Luckily, the costs to date have remained in budget since some money is allocated for emergencies, Belanger said.

The city also budgeted for work to Silver Street, where about 2,000 feet of the oldest water main will be replaced by the end of this year as part of other road improvements. About one-third of that 1888 piping has been replaced so far, but no leaks were discovered, Belanger said.

Complicating matters in some communities are new environmental regulations. The Seacoast in particular faces some expensive challenges as a result of the need to protect the Great Bay.

All this is happening when state and federal funds to help cities and towns with these multi-million dollar investments is difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

The state used to pay 20 to 30 percent toward community water and sewer projects but a moratorium was adopted in 2008. No money is in the proposed state budget for new projects though a backlog of existing projects will finally get their state share of funding.

“Water infrastructure is part of New Hampshire’s economic advantage. However, the condition of the systems that provide us with clean water and treat our waste may not be able to meet future demands, and many are, or will shortly be, in need of significant repair and upgrading. Unless investments are made, we will lose this competitive edge,” according to the report of the water commission.

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