One Man’s Opinion: Burst Pipes and Infrastructure Dreams

Near universal infrastructure, among the envy of much of the developed and developing countries of the world, remains a strong American calling card, particularly as we moved  ‘the peaceful transition of power’ out of the way.  Flip a light switch, absent a bad bulb, the light turns on, turn on a water spigot, and out spouts hot, cold or blended clean and safe, potable water, suitable for bathing, cooking or consuming.

Local governments, principally cities and counties, but also villages and townships depending on the state, developed their respective water & sewer networks, storm water drainage systems, their ages and development timelines differ, but here in Georgia, particularly in each of our major population centers, much of that infrastructure is now 70-100 years old.  I live in DeKalb County, where most of the north and central parts of the county received plumbing hookups around 1945, as the sole county commissioner of that day, Scott Candler, lured General Motors to build a new automotive plant in Doraville, Georgia.

Candler and the county took over the old Decatur Water Works and expanded the county water system from Doraville across north and central DeKalb.  This was then no minor feat, as only 20 years prior in Atlanta, the ‘Ash Men’ would still make regular nightly trips through residential areas, removing human waste from outhouses and ash boxes, to dump in what is now the lower meadow of Piedmont Park (with an Atlanta watershed sewerage treatment plant underground there today).

A decade ago, as a federal consent decree, primarily related to massive sewer spills into waterways on the county’s southside, DeKalb began to replace and repair its oldest pipes, beginning with the City of Decatur and the system it took over in 1945.  In the nearly 80 years since, DeKalb expanded water and sewer service across the south of the county, primarily built out by local community developers.  Other than spot repairs, very little replacement or repair occurred countywide.

And replacing these old, leaking, outdated, antiquated and failing old pipes cannot be done all at the same time. When you replace an old/leaky main or sewer line, with a larger new line, you also need more AIR PRESSURE to move the water along, to the smaller pipes and offshoots downstream. When that INCREASED pressure moves downstream, into those often smaller, aging pipes, with weak or corroded pipe joints, what do you think happens?  Pipes and joints crack and burst or reach critical failure.

Welcome to Midtown and downtown Atlanta Summer Water Follies of 2024.  As you cannot replace all pipes overnight, and as we bring in new and better pipes, sans leaks, rodents and other improvements, there will be cleaner water, and better water pressure, but also old pipes bursting.

The City of Atlanta now has two water pump stations, the Hemphill Station near Georgia Tech along Marietta Street (a century old) and a new pump station, adjacent to more than 2-billion gallon water reservoir at Bellwood Quarry Park in northwest Atlanta (repurposing a former granite quarry).

DeKalb County has only ONE pump-station, named for Scott Candler along the Chattahoochee, which also provides and sells water to multiple metro area municipalities.

And while I am aware I will be in the minority on this, I do not believe that federal taxpayers should bail out the City of Atlanta or DeKalb County residents and water ratepayers.  Our water system customers and taxpayers should fund needed repairs and improvements, just as we do local roadways, sidewalks, and our parks and public safety.  IF we all want to go back to well water and fending for ourselves, that is a choice, but if we want to offer and maintain first-world infrastructure, we will have to pay for that.

Ultimately, that likely means a combination of bond issuance (for cash flow), increased water/sewer rates and potentially sales and property tax increases.  IF you pay $3.00 for bottled water at RaceTrac or more for “spring water” at your favorite restaurant, it should be easy to understand that clean and drinkable tap water is not infinite in supply and delivering it to your home, like the electric grid, comes with ongoing and increasing costs.

There will always be other opportunities to invest public funds and competing demands, as well as the hot topic of each moment.  But please remember, what separates us and the U.S. from being Haiti or Mexico, is safe drinking water and a reliably functioning flush... And that is something worth fighting to save as well.

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