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Pipe problems plague older communities

By Sean Ryan

Franklin can afford to wait as its neighbor to the north scrambles for money to deal with a growing roster of water pipe replacement projects.

“We really don’t have old water mains, so we just don’t have the problem,” said John Bennett, Franklin director of public works. “We probably won’t have the problems Milwaukee has for another 50 to 70 years.”

Most Franklin utilities were installed in the late 1970s, Bennett said, and are expected to last 100 years. The Franklin Water Utility spends about $75,000 a year on pipe repairs, he said, and practically nothing on replacement projects.

Franklin is unique compared with municipalities that had building booms in the late 1800s and after World War II and now face a huge need for pipe-replacement work in the coming years.

The city of Milwaukee is spending $15.4 million in 2010 on pipe replacement projects, and the expenses will grow to $17.5 million next year and $18.5 million by 2013, said Carrie Lewis, Milwaukee Water Works superintendent.

“Our objective is to get to having the average life of our pipes at 100 years,” she said.

Milwaukee Water Works pays for the projects with money left over from water rate fees after operations and management are paid for. But the utility needs more money for capital projects and has asked the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin for a rate increase.

The PSC, before increasing the water rate, will study the utility’s annual operating and maintenance expenses and the costs of the pipe replacement projects, among other needs.

Milwaukee’s increasing pipe-replacement need is not unique, said John Cromwell, an environmental economist in the Washington, D.C., office of Stratus Consulting Inc. Pipes built in the post-World War II development boom were poorly designed and have a shorter life span than modern pipes, he said.

Cromwell, who was part of a nationwide study of 20 U.S. communities facing the problem of aging pipes, said the need for new pipes will increase steadily through 2050.

“We’re at the beginning of a new era of this infrastructure,” he said.

Franklin, instead of focusing on replacing pipe, is planning to expand its system, Bennett said. As more people move into the city, he said, Franklin will need two new water towers and a new 24-inch water main on Puetz Road.

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