Shea-Porter talks drinking water in Rochester
ROCHESTER — During a visit to the city’s water treatment facility on Monday, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., called on representatives in Concord and her colleagues in Washington to do more to commit to protecting local citizens’ drinking water.
Shea-Porter is urging the creation of a new $284 billion national drinking water infrastructure bank to help communities grappling with deteriorating, century-old drinking water pipes and systems.
The proposal to create the bank, House Resolution 547, would provide towns with another source of revenue for capital projects and preventive maintenance. In New Hampshire, those projects are typically funded through either the state’s drinking water revolving fund or through individual municipalities’ tax bases.
Rochester and other cities still use sections of old piping that were installed in the 1870s and 1880s in an effort to invest in the future safety of their communities, according to local officials. Shea-Porter said Monday it’s time for today’s leaders repeat that civic gesture, particularly in light of ongoing drinking water contamination issues faced by communities like Flint, Mich.
“Clearly, they need funding to do this,” she said. “It’s time for us to do what was done 140 years ago when they looked forward and said, ‘We need an infrastructure that will allow our communities to grow and have safe water.’ This is not a political issue. Everybody relies on clean water. Everybody has a reason to be fully invested in finding the solutions.”
Shea-Porter made the remarks while touring parts of Rochester’s drinking water system, including the city’s reservoir and water treatment plant off Strafford Road. Rochester has won a number of awards for its system and water quality, which Shea-Porter, a Rochester resident, said made it an ideal stop to learn more about infrastructure that could be aided by HR 547.
Monday’s tour and conversation with Shea-Porter was timely for Rochester, as a small water-main break knocked out water for a handful of East Rochester residents for a short time Saturday. The break occurred near the intersection of Cocheco Avenue and Main Street around 10 a.m. Saturday.
It cost the city about $2,500 to repair the cracked 8-inch cast iron line in place. Ian Rohrbacher, chief operator of Rochester’s water system, said that’s a relatively small sum considering the full replacement of a roughly one-mile section of pipe typically costs at least $1 million.
In total, Rochester has about 125 miles of water main. Half of that pipe is cast iron that dates to at least the 1950s or older, which means the full replacement of the old sections would cost in excess of $60 million. And that’s on top of the untold additional costs of regular maintenance and improvements at the treatment plant, pump stations or other parts of the city’s drinking water infrastructure, according to Rohrbacher.
Rochester isn’t alone. Some communities even face the need to replace sections of original wooden pipes. Rohrbacher said Rochester chose to install cast iron pipes in the 1870s and 1880s, whereas some towns chose less-durable wooden pipes because they were the cheaper and faster-to-install alternative.
The plan wasn’t for those pipes to last forever, although a number of New Hampshire towns effectively treat them that way because, according to Rohrbacher, mains are often only fixed when they break or fail because tax bases and the state’s drinking water revolving fund can only go so far.
“We’re on borrowed time,” said Rohrbacher, adding that Rochester does have scheduled maintenance and improvement programs for its water infrastructure.
Shea-Porter said she’s “encouraged” by the bipartisan support that drinking water legislation has in the U.S. Congress. However, she said there is uncertainty whether HR 547 will make it out of committee and whether the White House will support the creation of a national drinking water infrastructure bank.
“We’re not anywhere close,” she said. “We’re talking across each other right now.”
Even if the bank isn’t approved, Shea-Porter said she’s confident water in some way or form will be a focus in Washington legislation moving forward.
“We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg now,” she said.