EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part series looking at Mount Vernon's water-pipe issues. Part 1 was published on Nov. 20.
Unfortunately for the city, the factors that caused the first two citywide boil advisories persist.
The line that snapped twice runs 1.77 miles, according to Mayor Matt Starr, traversing the heart of Mount Vernon’s downtown business district. But it isn’t the only old pipe in the city.
“We have cast-iron pipe out there that was put in before 1900,” City Utilities Director Mathias Orndorf said.
Aging infrastructure plagues various portions of Mount Vernon, Mayor Matt Starr said, leaving open the possibility for future leaks – and future boil advisories. The city is currently in the midst of several infrastructure projects aimed at solving the problem. Aging water lines on the city’s north end are being replaced, and the city is now contracting for leak inspections in certain areas (including West Gambier Street).
Still, Starr said, these fixes are merely a drop in the bucket compared to the larger, more existential issue. There are roughly 400 miles of linear water lines in the city, he explained. Even if the city spent a million dollars each year replacing portions of that – given current construction costs – it would still take hundreds of years to reach every water line in the city.
“We’d be asking some water lines to last about 360 years. That’s just not going to happen,” Starr said. “So we’ve gotta come up with a better plan.”
Starr said the city is currently collecting data to determine which water lines are in urgent need of repair. The city’s utilities commission is “taking a hard look” at water/wastewater tax rates, Starr added, and could be recommending changes soon to meet the need.
These actions will complement proactive measures the city is already taking to improve its underground infrastructure. The city recently began a year-round valve-maintenance program, ensuring all of the city’s 1,000-plus water-line valves are tested for defects; it’s also now replacing old water lines with new, ductile pipe, which is rated for 100 years of use (as opposed to the 60 years guaranteed from the old material).
“We’re collecting a lot of data,” Starr said. “We’ve gotta have a way to replace this old infrastructure.”
The city also cannot ignore its aging New Gambier Road reservoir, which still needs repairs done to ensure its longevity. So far, both times the city has tried to inspect the reservoir, it has caused a water-line break.
Starr said the city is looking to purchase valves that would be installed on the West Gambier Street water line. This would allow the city to isolate portions of the line while reservoir testing occurred, preventing future breaks. There are currently only three valves for the entire 1.77-mile line, Starr explained, whereas normally there would be valves every three or four blocks.
“We’re looking into how we can get in there to isolate that water line, so we don’t have to go under a citywide boil advisory again,” Starr said.
Each valve will likely cost $40,000, Starr said. It’s unclear how many the city will need.
“There’s no way to reduce the price,” Starr said. “We’re gonna be fine, and we’ll find a way to move money around to be able to take care of this.”
If the city is able to isolate this water line and proceed with reservoir inspections, it will be able to determine what needs repaired in the reservoir before bidding out the project. This will save the city money, Starr said, as it will allow for more specific recommendations.
“We’re trying to save money, trying to do diagnostics right now so we can lay down more clear expectations in terms of price and what we’re looking at,” he said.
Between the leak inspections, data collection and valve replacements, Starr said the city is taking a multi-pronged approach to preventing another infrastructure emergency. While he did not know when the city might test the reservoir again, he said the city would notify residents “24 hours in advance” via Knox Alerts, social media and the city’s website.
“We’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now on this …” Starr said. “We’ve got a lot of fixing to do, but we’ll get there.”