Water main

Work began early this week to replace three, 16-foot sections of 54 inch water main near Whistler and Wilmarco Avenues in southwest Baltimore. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / July 18, 2012)

Back in the late 1700s, when Baltimoreans got their water from nearby streams, springs and wells, every household was ordered to keep two leather buckets filled to fight fires.

That precaution might come in handy again, as the water main break Monday near the Inner Harbor delivered a disruptive reminder to downtown businesses and commuters of just how decrepit the regional system supplying the vital liquid has become.

For years, there have been about 1,000 breaks annually in the 4,500-mile network of underground pipes that carries water to 1.8 million residents in the city and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties.

But even as the city plans a major increase in pipe replacements, officials say it would take more than a century to restore all of the system's pipes. And they warn that water rates likely will continue to rise to cover the work.

Rudy Chow, chief of water and wastewater for the city Department of Public Works, says he's trying to balance the need for overhauling the system with the higher costs utility customers must bear.

"Will ... the number of breaks begin to tail off? That will take many years and many, many miles of replacement," he said. "But this is a starting point."

Officials blame the breaks on the age of Baltimore's water infrastructure, most of which is more than 70 years old. The 20-inch-wide cast-iron pipe that ruptured beneath Light Street was laid in 1889, officials say, and it's apparently not the oldest still in use. A pipe stamped "1876" was uncovered beneath Greenmount Avenue several years ago, according to public works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

Since the 1990s at least, engineering experts have been warning that water lines installed decades ago in communities around the country are wearing out and need to be systematically replaced.

"We've known this problem's coming for a while. We just haven't managed to fix it yet," said Seth Guikema, an assistant professor of geography and environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. He has worked with utilities from Pennsylvania to Texas to help them spot pipes prone to rupture.

Nationwide, water system managers have awakened to the need to keep tabs on the condition of underground pipes and replace them before they fail, sometimes with catastrophic results. But many local officials have been unable or unwilling to confront the staggering cost and scale of a comprehensive overhaul.

Baltimore has been no exception — public works crews have been swapping out five miles or less of pipe per year over the past decade — a rate that officials acknowledged last week was far short of what's needed.

Now, city officials say they plan to increase pipe replacement eightfold over the next five years — to 40 miles a year. Water rates must rise to cover the costs, they say, which are estimated to be $300 million by 2018.

Baltimore's water system dates to the early 1800s, and city officials worked for the first century and a half to see that there was enough to go around as the region grew, constructing reservoirs, pumping stations and filtration plants into the expanding suburbs.

In the mid-1980s, a public works official confidently asserted that with three large reservoirs — Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty — and an insurance pipeline to the Susquehanna River, there ought to be enough water to satisfy the population as it increased over the next 50 to 100 years.

Securing a water supply is one thing; delivering it is another. In Baltimore, public works officials point out they've been making costly upgrades to filtration plants and other facilities to meet federal requirements to protect drinking water from disease and chemical contaminants. They've also been working on a decade-long, $1 billion overhaul of city sewer lines, mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency because of chronic overflows of raw waste that fouls Baltimore's harbor and streams.

No similar regulatory pressure has come for a water main makeover. While the wooden pipes used in the early 1800s have long since been supplanted, the general attitude about water mains once installed was simply to replace them if they break.

Break, they have. Three years ago, the downtown area was hit by two major ruptures in two months that disrupted performances at Center Stage, flooded basements, closed offices and businesses, and snarled commutes for days. About 100 homes in Dundalk were flooded by a rupture in September 2009. About 100,000 homes and businesses lost water service in yet another major break in 2010 along Reisterstown Road in Baltimore County.

"We haven't kept up with the maintenance that's needed over the past 40 to 50 years," said Guikema, who blames that in part on the reluctance of water system managers — and their politician bosses — to raise rates to pay for overhauls. "We've underfunded the system since the 1950s and '60s, and now we've paid the price."

Public works officials, in fact, used to brag that Baltimore's water and sewer rates were among the lowest in the nation.