Charlotte faces leaking pipes, looming costs

Water main breaks hit south central Charlotte more frequently than other parts of town over the past five years, an Observer analysis shows.

Records obtained from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities show a disproportionate number of breaks between Interstate 77 and Independence Boulevard.

More than half of the city's 30 hardest hit neighborhoods fall in a section covering less than a quarter of the city.

The area includes some of Charlotte's most popular neighborhoods and busiest roads.

If you live in Dilworth or Myers Park, if you drive Providence Road and South Boulevard, you've likely dealt with blown water mains. They can block traffic, knock out water and cost millions a year to repair.

Utilities officials say breaks are part of life in a growing town, especially one where many neighborhoods are being redeveloped with tear-downs and infill construction.

But some local leaders wonder if it's time to focus more energy, and maybe more money, on an overhaul of the water system in some of Charlotte's older neighborhoods.

“I think now would be a good time to inventory our system and get an idea of where the problems are, and what it would cost to start fixing them,” said City Council member Andy Dulin, a Republican who represents some of the hardest hit areas.

Wrestling with breaks

Water main breaks captured the spotlight this summer when leaks started popping up across south central Charlotte.

A comparison conducted by the Observer at the time found that Charlotte wrestled with more water main breaks than other like-sized cities.

Such breaks range from headache to hassle. Some are fixed quickly, often before the public is aware of them. Others can lead to water outages, traffic jams and in some cases, lost revenue.

Trace Manning was working a busy lunch at La Paz Restuarante on South Boulevard in June when a water main burst right outside the restaurant. The street flooded and the road caved in.

Manning, the owner and operator, was forced to close for the day as the city tore up the street to make repairs.

“We lost about $3,500 in sales and another $2,500 in what we paid to the plumber and HVAC repairman, making sure everything was back up and running right,” Manning said.

The summer's most significant break occurred in early June when a valve on a 54-inch main along Providence Road sprung a leak.

Officials shut the pipe down and instituted temporary water restrictions for much of the city. Shutting down the main put pressure on the system, and may have led to a series of breaks that followed, officials said.

The outbreak of leaks caught the attention of City Council member Patsy Kinsey, a Democrat who represents much of the area most affected. Kinsey wanted to know the age of the leaking pipes and whether they'd been installed correctly.

“We're talking about the people's money and these are things we should be asking ourselves,” she said. Kinsey said she asked City Manager Curt Walton to look into the problems. She has not had any of her questions answered, she said.

Troubled area

Last month the Observer requested records for all water main breaks since 2003, where they occurred and how old the pipes were.

Officials said they were unable to provide ages for the pipes.

But an analysis of the data they did provide showed that south central Charlotte suffered a disproportionate number of breaks between 2003 and the middle of 2008.Of the 30 hardest hit neighborhoods during that time, 18 were located between I-77 and Independence Boulevard. And nine of the top 15 problem roads run through the same area.

Myers Park and Dilworth, two of Charlotte's oldest communities, experienced the highest number of breaks in the city. Myers Park had 274 breaks during that 5 1/2-year span – almost twice as many as the second- ranked neighborhood, Dilworth.

The street hit most often was South Boulevard, with 46 breaks. Park and Providence roads were other trouble spots, with 36 breaks each. Queens Road had 30.

Utility workers responded to 14 breaks in one eight-block span on South Boulevard, not far from East Boulevard. And 20 breaks occurred in five-block stretch along Queens Road, near the university.

‘Strain on a system'

Utilities officials aren't surprised that south central Charlotte faces so many water breaks. The area is undergoing a lot of development, most of it built atop an aging infrastructure.

Neighborhoods such as Dilworth, the original streetcar suburb, are among the oldest parts of town. The pipes under its streets can be brittle, especially when someone is replacing a 2,000 square-foot home with a 10,000 square-foot home.

“Construction puts a strain on a system,” said Barry Gullet, deputy utilities director. “Concrete trucks. Bulldozers. The ground shakes and vibrates and that causes soil to shift and move and can lead to breaks, especially with older pipes.”

In the past five years, Charlotte has spent about $30 million on repairing and rehabilitating water lines. That number includes neighborhood service lines, as well as water mains. The city expects to spend another $30 million over the next five years.

Utilities spokesman Vic Simpson said the department decides how to spend its money by using a metric that takes into account water main breaks, water quality complaints and water pressure tests. He said the department has worked a lot in the past five years in the older parts of town.

“We feel like what we do works,” Simpson said. “The current levels of funding are appropriate for the existing water system.”

Simpson said the city could always spend more, but wholesale overhauls are expensive.

Atlanta uses a similar method for determining where to spend its money. That city has spent $47 million in the past five years on water main rehabilitation, and the city plans to spend $1 billion on water main rehabilitation by 2012.

That is partly because the city signed a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, promising to repair its woeful sewer system. Officials figured that since they were tearing up the roads to fix the sewers, they might as well fix the water mains.

“We had an aging infrastructure and it was time to fix it,” said Janet Ward, spokesperson for Atlanta Watershed Management.

Charlotte council member Dulin said it may be time for this city to take a similar path. Dulin acknowledged the cost of a major overhaul would be “astronomical.”

“We live in a big city and that means we are going to deal with stuff like this,” he said. “But we might need to start doing forensic work on our water system to see where our problem areas are.”

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