Thursday, February 8, 2007

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure: My ninth-grade world history teacher used to say that everything comes down to infrastructure in the end. Turns out she was right. The Times is on top of the aging of our urban water infrastructure, which, in Portland, meant raising sewer rates to pay for massive redevelopment projects -- and a swallowed sewage truck:

Local and state officials across the country say thousands of miles of century-old underground water and sewer lines are springing leaks, eroding and — in extreme cases — causing the ground above them to collapse. Though there is no master tally of sinkholes, there is consensus among civil engineers and water experts that things are getting worse.

The Environmental Protection Agency has projected that unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, nearly half of the water system pipes in the United States will be in poor, very poor or “life elapsed” status by 2020.


[Portland] is in the 16th year of a 20-year, $1.4 billion, federally mandated project to reduce sewage overflows into the Willamette River from about 100 days a year to 4 days or less. Signs in the city promote two enormous sewer and storm water lines being dug as part of the project, one on the west bank of the Willamette that is 14 feet in diameter and another on the east side that is 22 feet in diameter.


Overflows are a problem in many cities, and fixing them is not cheap; Portland has some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country. Mr. Marriott said the average residential sewer bill in Portland has risen to about $45 a month from about $14 in the early 1990s, when the city began the mandated improvements.

Once the project is completed, he said, rates will probably stay high so that the city can fix other problems, like the sewer pipe decay that officials believe most likely helped cause the sinkhole in December, the one that swallowed the sewer truck.

Mack McEachern was there on that chilly morning. First the water in his apartment on Southeast Oak Street stopped running. Then the boiler in the basement began to fade. Water-utility workers came to check an exterior main. The city inspected a clogged sewer line. Something was wrong with the system, but what?

Mr. McEachern recalled how he stood outside and watched the big sewer truck start to pull away, supposedly without having pinpointed the problem.

Then, he said, “The ground shook.”


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