Urban water past: Crumbling infrastructure needs new funding model

Saturday , March 28, 2015 - 12:43 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series exploring the vital issue of northern Utah’s urban water supplies.

South Davis Boulevard in Bountiful runs through a neighborhood of modest single-story ramblers. All were built between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Yards of bright green grass with neatly manicured trees cover all the roughly quarter-acre lots. Roughly a decade before the first homes began popping up in the neighborhood, the federal government placed its backbone, 10 feet below the street, covering over 20 miles.

That backbone, the Davis Aqueduct Pipeline, helped grow neighborhoods and sustain life in northern Utah, but it’s now beginning to crumble.

Weber Basin Water Staff Engineer Briant Jacobs pauses for a moment for a portrait in a 48 inch water pipe in Bountiful on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Weber Basin Water is making repairs on water pipes in Bountiful for the month of March. Once the water was stopped workers went in with pressure hoses to remove grime in the 50-year-old pipe. Joints are being repaired and protected by an epoxy that should last 50 years or longer on these pipes. (Briana Scroggins/Standard-Examiner)

Instead of tearing up the ground and replacing it, at 48 inches, the pipeline is just big enough to fit a full-grown construction worker inside, which will help save the neighborhood the hassle of ripping up the roads and homes that weren’t there when the pipeline first went in. It also saves Weber Basin Water Conservancy District some money, and when it comes to our crumbling urban water infrastructure, any saved costs go a long way.

Things still seem calm on the surface of Davis Boulevard, but 10 feet down, it’s cold and loud in the Davis Aqueduct Pipeline. Fans echo up and down the conduit, moving air to make sure there’s enough oxygen for workers. After crawling down a manhole leading to the aqueduct’s interior, Darren Hess points out the still-visible Sharpie notes along the concrete surface — “10-17-56,” or Oct. 17, 1956, when the pipeline first went in the ground.

“This pipeline is 60-plus years old, so it’s actually reached (the end of) its engineering design life,” Hess says, who works as the engineering manager with Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

Writing indicating that the Davis Aqueduct pipeline conduits were laid in October of 1956 is still legible in the 48-inch water pipe in Bountiful on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Weber Basin Water is making repairs on the aqueduct in Bountiful for the month of March. Once the water was stopped, workers went in with pressure hoses to remove grime in the 59-year-old pipes. Joints are being repaired and protected by an epoxy that should help the aqueduct last another 50 years. (Briana Scroggins/Standard-Examiner)

It’s been half a century and a massive population boom since water workers scribbled their first Sharpie marks on the Davis pipeline walls. Both the urban political environments have changed. The past arrangement that helped put our urban water infrastructure in the ground isn’t around to help maintain it.

The Bureau of Reclamation raised the Weber Basin’s seven dams and built its pipelines and treatment plants. Technically, it still owns most of the infrastructure that made growth in Weber and Davis counties possible, and water users have slowly paid back the bureau over time. But as that infrastructure begins to decay, we’ve entered a new era of urban water. The federal government is no longer willing to front any funds. Meanwhile, a population boom lies ahead.

“We did a condition assessment on this pipeline four years ago and we found out the pipe barrel has another 100 years of life,” Hess says. “The joints are kind of the weak link.”

The joints bind the aqueduct’s concrete conduits so it can supply two counties. It spans the Wasatch foothills from Weber Canyon to North Salt Lake, supplying raw water to treatment plants, industrial customers and, along with the Weber Aqueduct Pipeline, irrigation systems for 500,000 people and 16,000 acres along the way. It carries water siphoned down canyons and through mountains. But after five decades of water pressure, the mortar is corroding.

“The joints are getting to the point where they need regular rehabilitation to ensure they don’t start leaking on us on a regular basis,” Hess says. “That’s why we have to go in and repair these joints and extend the life another 50-plus years.”

Eventually, all 26 miles of pipeline joints will need to be replaced in the Davis and Weber pipelines. There are also issues with deteriorating secondary pipes, canals, pumps and plants that make the entire Weber Basin water system work.

“We’ve got hundreds of miles of pipe that aren’t necessarily this large but are similar in terms of age and design as this pipeline, so there’s a lot of work to be done,” Hess says.

Out of sight, not out of mind

Statewide, water managers say we’re looking at a total bill of $33 billion to take our urban supply system to 2060. That’s when Utah’s current population is expected to have doubled. Just under half of those figures, around $15 billion, will be for new supply construction. The rest will go to rehabilitating and repairing what we already have on and in the ground.

Water managers throughout the state worked together on “Prepare 60,” an initiative exploring future costs for Utah’s water supplies. Their total estimate by 2060 is $33 billion, with more than half going to repairing and replacing aging infrastructure already on or in the ground.

There’s some dispute over the exact amount infrastructure will cost the state in the decades to come, but one thing’s clear. Figures for repair and replacement will exceed the original cost of first building our water infrastructure by millions.

“The reason is, it’s more difficult to go in and replace something that’s already in the ground than it would’ve been to build it to start with,” said Tage Flint, general manager of Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

Work on the Echo Reservoir Dam, for example, just wrapped up this fall. The district spent $60 million on a seismic retrofit. Its initial construction in 1931 cost only $1.5 million.

Channeling and storing rivers and runoff for human consumption certainly isn’t cheap. It took Weber Basin Water Conservancy District 15 years to replace three of its four water treatment plants, and cost $50 million. They’re also working on lining canals like the Willard Canal for $1,000 a foot.

Flint said while the situation is troubling, it shouldn’t be taken as a sob story.

“We have a plan to figure this out, but I think it’s a level of appreciation for what we’re dealing with although it’s out of sight,” he said. “Dams are on the upper end of it, then there are diversion structures, treatment plants, power plants, hydropower plants. For us, it’s also thousands of miles of canals and pipelines — they’re everywhere, but you mostly can’t see them.”

Paying to repair the past and plan for the future

In the next 50 years, water managers say Weber Basin’s chunk of the water infrastructure bill will be $2.7 billion for new infrastructure and supply, and another $3.7 billion for repair and replacement. The biggest barrier is figuring out how to cover all those costs without the federal government’s help.

Estimated costs to repair and replace old infrastructure, as well as build projects for new supplies, is estimated to cost the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District $3.7 billion by 2060.

Water users will pay the bill in the long term. In the next 50 years, Flint said water rates could surge to three or four times the price they are now.

“It’s going to take a long time, but yeah, I think you can expect that,” he said. “Water is relatively cheap in this state.”

But water projects need upfront financing to get rolling. Some water projects, like tapping new supplies from the Bear River and Lake Powell Pipeline projects, take decades of planning and construction.

“We are trying very hard to have a replacement program in place with reserve funds so we can replace things as the need comes,” Flint said. “But it takes a conscious effort to put a lot of money aside in advance of having to replace it.”

According to Flint, financing for just over half of the state’s future water costs will come from water conservation districts. Another 20 percent will come from the state Division of Water Resources revolving fund, which traditionally has been used for rural water projects.

“That still leaves about a fourth of that $33 billion cost, and in the past, the federal government would’ve covered that,” Flint said. “We believe that, now, is a new state role.”

The Utah Legislature passed a bill this last session to help carry that new role forward. Senate Bill 281 will funnel more funds to help pay for billions in future water bills, from new projects to old infrastructure. But lawmakers only deposited $5 million into the fund to start. It’s barely a drop in the bucket.

“It’s an uncomfortable position because the Legislature has been actively funding education, transportation and state buildings — they have not had to focus on water,” Flint said. “We’re now getting into a new era of how to do that.”

The old era was the epoch of the Bureau of Reclamation. It built most of Utah’s dams and water projects. They helped grow and green the West. In Weber and Davis counties alone, the bureau’s projects helped populations flourish in six decades by 186 percent and 943 percent, respectively. Those pipelines helped supply water to growing neighborhoods while reservoirs helped sustain communities through periods of drought.

“They were visionaries; we’ll give them full credit for that,” Flint said. “These reservoirs were built and planned for by folks who were looking at a population chart that’s not unlike what we’re looking at going forward, and they planned for us, essentially.”

Planning will now need to come at the local level. Last year, managers with the state’s four largest water districts, serving the Weber/Davis, Salt Lake/Provo, central Utah and St. George areas, put their heads together on “Prepare 60. The idea is to help prepare for the state’s water future and population explosion leading to 2060.

Tapping future water

Part of that plan is figuring out future water supplies. Water managers typically measure water by the acre-foot, equaling enough water to cover a football field with a foot of water. It’s also the amount they figure an average household will use in a year. It amounts to just under 900 gallons a day — unless that household is on an acre, in which case managers estimate they need three times that amount.

The total amount of new water needed by 2060 is 371,000 acre-feet. About 59 percent of that new supply will come from the Bear River project. Another 23 percent will come from developing the last portion of the state’s allocation on the Colorado River. The remainder will come from smaller local projects, including tapping groundwater and converting agricultural supplies.

All said, Prepare 60 found that water from interstate river system compacts, on the Colorado and Bear rivers, accounts for 82 percent of the state’s future water. At least on paper.

Storage will be the main component of those projects. Nearly 100 years after the first dam was constructed on the Ogden and Weber rivers in the 1930s, the Bear River project could mean a new period of dam building in the region. Flint said the project would need at least two or three more reservoirs.

“We don’t need the funds overnight, we don’t need it in the next few years … but we do need it in the next couple of decades, and we need to start construction on the Bear River somewhere in the 2030s,” Flint said. “It’s going to take a lot of years to get enough money in there to be able to do it.“

It’s also going to take a lot of money and energy to fight a heavy current of protesters worried about dams and their implications for river ecology.

”It’s complex, and we’re not ready to defend, denounce or do anything for the Bear River project. We’re not there yet,“ Flint said. ”Until it’s studied harder and longer, and the impacts are better identified, the only thing we can do is preserve our options for now, and do the best we can locally to delay those projects as long as we can.“  

In the meantime, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District will only get a mile or so worth of joint repair done in the Davis Aqueduct this year. They only have a four-week window before the irrigation season begins again.

Come April, residents in Weber and Davis counties will start flipping on their sprinklers to keep their lawns lush through the summer. Water will need to flow through the pipeline to meet those demands.

The season also means renewed focus on water conservation, which Flint called the district’s biggest water development project.

“We don’t want to build large water projects, contrary to popular belief,” Flint said. “We’d much rather do all we can for our existing systems.”

Part two of this series explores conservation efforts and the complexity of northern Utah’s secondary water system.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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