When headlines blare “Infrastructure falling apart,” readers may picture potholes in the road and rusted-out bridges that need to be replaced. This is the infrastructure we can see easily.

But as pointed out in an Associated Press article published in the newspaper on Sept. 27, “Maine has miles of aging water mains awaiting replacement” (Sept. 27), another infrastructure system— the one under our feet — is, in many places, much older than the roads we drive on.

Underground, out of sight and out of mind, is a massive network of water systems that function all day, every day, to bring us clean, safe drinking water and take away used water needing treatment.

According to National Geographic, the United States has 1.2 million miles of water mains — that’s 26 miles of mains for every mile of interstate highway. Many of those pipes were installed in the 1800s or early 1900s, and many of these systems were built for cities of a century ago, not modern metropolises.

Nearly 1,000 miles of Portland Water District pipe transports water from Sebago Lake to serve more than 200,000 people in the Portland area. The system is a complex network of pipes made of various materials and is composed of water mains that range from 1 inch to 60 inches across.

Over the past 10 years, roughly 30 miles of pipe have been replaced, and another 50 to 60 miles of pipe will be replaced in the next 10 years. Water outages because of a water main break are typically short in duration and affect a small area. But a major system failure would be catastrophic.

Imagine a day without water. Water is critical to ensure public health. We couldn’t brush our teeth, flush the toilet or bathe.

Residential use is just part of the picture. Commercial use is a huge component of water consumption as well. Everything — from breweries and restaurants to manufacturing plants — need water. Our medical facilities need water to ensure patient safety. Water keeps our economy flowing.

Public safety is another major consideration. There are nearly 400,000 house fires in the country each year, and water flowing from a hydrant or sprinkler system is our best defense. Public safety and fire protection were primary concerns prompting the initial development of our country’s water systems. We need our underground pipes to be ready for this life-saving service.

Water consumers know that clean water is essential, but they also need an awareness of how water agencies, like the Portland Water District, are addressing the issues of an aging system. Roughly 20 percent of the Portland area’s water distribution system is more than 80 years old, which is why the water district continues to increase investments in water infrastructure.

Our capital improvement plan funds our water main replacement program, with $22 million invested in water main replacements during the last five years. These efforts have been successful. The number of main breaks has continued to decline over the past 30 years and fall well below national averages.

We are fortunate to have access to safe, reliable and affordable water in our communities. Our infrastructure is invisible to most of us, but keeping it operating well into the future is an ongoing effort. Water might fall from the sky and flow through our rivers, but it is far from free. Processing it, treating it and transporting it to and from our homes through an upgraded system costs millions of dollars.

The good news is that we can be ahead of the curve. Deferred maintenance, waiting until a water main breaks or a system breaks down, is the most expensive approach possible.

In contrast, by continually maintaining the system, using smarter technology that spots weaknesses in the system before breaks and planning incremental upgrades of our aging pipes, we save money in the long run.

Ronald Miller is general manager of the Portland Water District, and Guy Cote is president of the water agency’s board of trustees.


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