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Government, Politics & Issues

Aging sewer system is a buried problem

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 25, 2011 - Two dozen feet below the joggers, dog walkers and artists painting picturesque still lifes on a clear, cool fall morning in Forest Park, Lance LeComb stands at the mouth of a darkened reinforced concrete tunnel backed by an opaque, mildly odiferous grayish-green stream flowing from toilets, showers and drains in thousands of St. Louis-area homes and businesses.

"If we were to shrink down to the size of an ant and were to go into the sewer system in front of your home, this is essentially what it would look like," the Metropolitan Sewer District spokesperson told a gaggle of assembled media trying gingerly not to trip in the gloom. "This is really just to highlight the vast network that exists beneath our feet that we need to be aware of and continually invested in."

According to a local utilities group, that investment won't come cheap. It may mean dramatic changes over the coming two decades that could leave the average family paying as much as $160 a month for the provision of water and sewer service.

The odd photo opportunity and sobering assessment surround a report issued this morning by the Metro Water Infrastructure Partnership (MWIP), an initiative formed in 2009 to raise awareness about issues related to aging infrastructure.

MWIP is a non-profit composed of various water and sewer utilities including the Metropolitan Sewer District, the water departments for the cities of St. Louis and Kirkwood and both Missouri American and Illinois American Water. Together, the four water supply organizations serve about 1.8 million customers in the area. The group, a 501(c)6, also includes the local section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, the Missouri Water Environment Association and the American Waterworks Association chapters in both Missouri and Illinois.

The 21-page report was introduced to local media with a tour of the Des Peres sewage tunnels in the park. It outlines in stark terms the coming challenges faced by utilities and policymakers, both locally and across the nation, as they confront the physical and financial realities created by an increasingly antiquated water and sewage system that dates back as much as a century or more.

"You flush the toilet. It goes away and you don't think about it," said Elise Ibendahl, president of the St. Louis Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "It's a hidden asset."

And that makes it a hidden problem. Interviewed by the Beacon before the report's release, Ibendahl noted that the core difficulty is that the network of pipes and sewers that keep water flowing in and out of homes daily doesn't have the "star power" of more visible forms of infrastructure such as roads.

"If a chunk is missing out of a bridge, you're going to notice that," she said. "If you've got a chunk missing out of a sewer, you're not going to notice that immediately. As long as it still kinda works, people don't think about it and there's not the support for funding the repair and the constant maintenance."

But maintenance increasingly means replacement both for water and sewer systems. According to the MWIP report authored by consultant CDM, about 1 percent of water mains must be replaced annually to avoid an increase in failures. Local replacement rates currently run about 0.4-0.7 percent.

"The increases in costs create challenges for utilities," the report said, "which must balance investments in the systems with affordability of rates for the community. When the need for infrastructure replacement is not balanced with investments because of concern over rates or the inability to raise capital, a funding 'gap' is created.

The Consequences

That gap is now estimated nationwide to run into the 12-figure range over five years, according to a 2009 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" issued by the civil engineers' group. The report card, which gave the country a D- on water and sewer issues, estimated an $11 billion annual shortfall in drinking water infrastructure. There's a $13 billion hole to fill in wastewater facilities each year. In fact, none of the 15 infrastructure areas covered was graded higher than a C. None received an F though either.

Locally, MWIP said the consequences of the failure to act are already becoming evident. It noted a sinkhole from the collapse last year of an 1870s-era sewer that opened up a 25-foot-long, 14-foot deep trench in Lafayette Square. Water main breaks in Kirkwood alone have increased fivefold since the 1980s, it said.

The report said that, among wastewater components, the average age of force mains are at their expected life of 25 years. The average age of the mechanical and electrical components of treatment plants is 20 years, while various other pieces of the system still have 10-50 years left. Among fresh water components, the average ages of reservoirs, dams, treatment plants, storage tanks and towers have all hit their life expectancies, while the mechanical and electrical parts of pumping stations are about 10 years past that mark. Facilities like transmission and distribution mains still have some time left.

Ibendahl said it can be an issue of public safety.

"I had a client once where a sewer collapsed in a day care parking lot," she said. "That's really hitting close to home. A child could have been injured."

Andrew Herrmann agrees. As president of the society of civil engineers, Herrmann chaired the committee that issued the national "report card" released in 2009. He was in town this morning to speak at a St. Louis University-sponsored symposium on infrastructure issues just after the tour.

He said the nation loses 7 billion gallons of drinking water a day through leaking pipes. Ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater go into surface water systems, sometimes due to capacity issues.

"Most of the infrastructure is out-of-sight, out-of-mind until something disastrous happens," he said. "We're trying to bring knowledge to the public of the infrastructure that was invested in by our grandparents and their grandparents. We're trying to point out that it's in poor condition and we need to start making investments to bring it up to the standards where it was decades ago."

Terry Gloriod, president of MWIP, said there will be no escaping rate increases.

"We've got to get about the business of investing and replacing them," he said. "It's quite expensive."

The Costs

St. Louis's metropolitan water and sewer system is not small. Some 17,000 miles of water infrastructure run through the area, enough to traverse the United States three times.

"It's very comparable to the size of the sewer system in Los Angeles, believe it or not," Ibendahl said.

Though she believes the East Coast has a more acute difficulty in some respects due to the age of their infrastructure, Ibendahl said that St. Louis' history and explosive development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave it one of the most extensive sewage networks in the country.

"We are left with a very large system to maintain without the population base to maintain it," she said. "In that, we have almost a unique problem in terms of a sewer system."

The River Des Peres tunnels where LeComb stood are evidence of that past. Designated a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark by ASCE, the 30-foot-tall horseshoe-shaped structures beneath the north edge of Forest Park were completed in the 1930s. It was part of a grand reshaping of the river from a natural waterway into the heart of the growing city's sewage system. Little of the original river, named for a French mission near its mouth decades before the founding of St. Louis, still exists. Extensive reengineering turned the stream into a heavily managed and largely underground affair.

"To think of it in total impact, funding the infrastructure gap of $34 million per year will increase water bills that are already going up by some estimates at a rate of 5 percent per year," said the report. "Taken together, the average household monthly water bill will likely exceed $80 in the next 15 to 20 years."

The report forecasts a similar figure for wastewater charges. It estimates the present sewer bill at less than $29 while Gloriod said present water bills run around $30 a month.

The unprecedented increase in cost is due to what is, for many utilities, an unprecedented problem brought about by a lack of investment in long-term capital infrastructure by institutions that didn't build much of the networks they now must maintain. Instead, modern unified water and sewer systems were frequently cobbled together from networks inherited from localities and private developers decades ago.

"As utilities developed rates for upkeep of the systems, traditionally, the cost of replacement was not included for assets that the utility did not originally fund," the report said. "The utilities are now faced with the task of replacing this aging infrastructure."

Gloriod said all too often conversations over infrastructure only occur when an increase is necessary. He said MWIP is an effort to be more proactive with that process.

"We're trying to get the conversation out of the rate hearing and convince people of the value of the assets and the need to replace them," he said.

MSD is already committed to making some of that investment. The sewer district will spend a minimum of $4.7 billion over the next 23 years as part of a consent decree with the federal government to address capacity issues. The improvements are part of an effort to reduce overflows that occur during heavy rains when storm water combines with the nasty flow that served as a backdrop for LeComb's talk to local journalists. When the system is overwhelmed, the result is a discharge of sewage into waterways.

"When you look at what else needs to happen for proper asset management in terms of needing to replace a certain amount of pipe every year just because it wears out, we'll be spending between $6 billion and $6.5 billion," LeComb said.

Though there is also a cost to not making the investment now, said Ibendahl.

"You've got factories dependent on our sewers to carry away waste," Ibendahl said. "That's an economic impact too. If they can't easily get water to supply their businesses, they are not going to move to St. Louis and produce jobs here."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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