Dig, scour, line, repeat -- for 1,400 miles; City wades in to fix its aging water pipes


Coming sometime this century or next to your Baltimore neighborhood: sidewalks cluttered with leaky water pipes, brown cubes in the icemaker and spotty water pressure that forces folks to choose between watering the lawn and flushing the john.

The city is slowly having its aging water pipes cleaned and lined with concrete, and for the past six months, workers have been plodding their way through Guilford and Roland Park.

In recent years, they've toiled in Sandtown-Winchester and the areas around Johns Hopkins Hospital and Penn Station.

"Everywhere you go, you see it," said J. D. Lantz, who has a big hole and a trail of fire hose-sized pipes outside his stately Roland Park home.

If it seems like a project that just goes on and on, it is.

City contractors have been at it for about 15 years, and at the present rate, they'll trudge on, a few streets at a time, for 100 more.

City officials don't think it will take that long because the work goes faster in areas where the pipes are smaller and in better shape.

But even they don't expect to wrap up the project for 15 or 20 years.

Public works officials say residents can't expect a quick fix in a city with enough water pipes to stretch from here to California - and only about $5 million a year to spend on them, including emergency repair work.

About half the city's 3,200 miles of pipe were slated for the improvements. Work has been completed on about 200 miles. That's a rate of about 13 miles of pipe work a year, with about 1,400 miles to go.

"It's a big project. And money is a big item," said Amar Sokhey, who heads the water and wastewater bureau of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, which puts each phase of the project out to bid.

"If you had unlimited funds, we might do the whole city right away."

Instead, workers concentrate on a neighborhood or two at a time.

Tackling mains in Roland Park and Guilford - serving homes between Cold Spring Lane and University Parkway, Roland Avenue and York Road - will cost $3.5 million and take Spiniello Cos. of Morristown, N.J., two years to complete, though work on any given street normally lasts only about four to six weeks, said Bob Murrow, DPW spokesman.

Roland Park and Guilford residents seem to be taking the pipe work in stride - though it sometimes takes a long stride to step over pipes strewn across sidewalks.

Barbara Patterson, an avid gardener, says she's had to become more strategic about watering her prized daylilies and roses since work began outside her West University Parkway home about a month ago.

"If I'm watering, I can't flush the toilet," she said.

"We were trying to do laundry and water, and that didn't work either."

But Patterson was quick to add that she's pleased the work is being done, since corrosion in the pipes - which can be as old as the area's turn-of-the-last-century houses - sometimes caused rust stains in her laundry.

"I am thrilled they are doing this. It's inconvenient, but I'm happy to put up with it," she said.

The project is less disruptive than it would have been a couple of decades ago, when whole streets had to be torn up to get to the pipes.

These days, workers dig a hole, reroute the water through above-ground pipes, and send a small machine through the old pipes to scour out corrosion and line them with concrete.

"You're still driving on the street, you still have use of the street, it's minimal excavation. It's a more consumer-friendly way of doing things," said Mike Schultz, chief of the construction management division of the city's water and wastewater bureau.

The cleaned, lined pipes will deliver water with less sediment and more pressure, which is particularly important for fire protection, officials said.

Nancy Flathman, a West University Parkway resident, knows all that and is happy that the pipes are being improved. But she'll be glad when the work is done.

Sediment stirred up by construction occasionally makes her water rusty and, she says, "almost thick."

A neighbor's icemaker has been churning out brown cubes.

Flathman isn't crazy about the pipes on the sidewalk outside her home, either.

"We walk the dog a lot, and you're constantly tripping over the pipes," she said. "They're not laid out consistently. They are a kind of menace. "

Flathman said the dog, a black Labrador named Tar, enjoys the leaky pipes, which spurt water 24 hours a day in front of their home. Tar likes to take a drink from the makeshift fountain, Flathman said, and a red fox that lives in the neighborhood has been spied lapping at it, too.

"So at least some creatures are glad of it, I guess," she said.

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