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Aging pipes pose million-dollar problem for area water systems

  • 8 April 2019
  • ckearns

By Edward Harris /  (article taken from

Water systems in Central New York are beyond antiquated.

Roughly a quarter of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority’s water mains were installed more than 100 years ago. And some portions of the system date back as far as the mid 1800s.

“It’s the story of America,” said Richard Goodney, MVWA’s director of engineering, speaking on the region’s water systems.

With approximately 126,000 customers, the MVWA supplies water to customers in 18 municipalities in Oneida and Herkimer counties.

Data provided by MVWA shows that 25 percent of its system’s mains are over a century old. Another 36 percent were installed between 50 to 100 years ago, and 39 percent were installed within the last 50 years.

The village of Ilion has a similarly archaic water system.

A book published for the village’s centennial in 1952 talks about the village overcoming objections to a water system in 1892 and mentions the installation of the village’s third reservoir in 1923. The third reservoir is no longer in use due to inadequate infrastructure.

How do you replace such antiquated systems? That is the million-dollar question — literally.

Goodney estimated the cost of fixing the whole MVWA system to be close to $1 billion. He said the cost of repair per mile would be $1 million and the MVWA system, as a whole, covers 700 miles.

Ilion Mayor Brian Lamica said a past study found that it would cost the village $40 million to adequately fix its water infrastructure, with half that needed solely to update the village’s water treatment plant.

“For a village the size of Ilion to come up with $40 million, we’d have to put up a sign saying ‘Ilion closed,’” Lamica said.

Since it’s not economically feasible for a municipality to update its entire water system, the process of modernizing often relies on a somewhat piecemeal approach.

Basic upgrades

As standard practice, new piping and mains are put in when construction is underway. There is no law or regulation requiring this, but no one wants to find themselves digging up freshly paved roads — which could have cost millions to construct — to install water pipes that could have been placed during the construction.

The Department of Transportation is applying this policy with the ongoing $16.6 million overhaul of Route 5S in Utica.  DOT regional spokesman Jim Piccola said crews are replacing approximately 4,500 feet of water main — ranging from 6 to 20 inches in diameter — throughout the project. Similar efforts would be done for the proposed U District, a sports and entertainment area targeted near the Adirondack Bank Center.

Goodney said that although the MVWA looks at all possible materials for its mains, it typically uses the latest specifications for ductile iron mains.

Ductile iron is a type of cast iron known for increased durability and fatigue resistance. It has been the go-to material since the 1950s and ’60s, Goodney said.

“It’s pretty much our material of choice,” he said.

The price of ductile iron fluctuates and depends on the oil and economic markets, Goodney said. The MVWA bids out for additional material every year.

Goodney said many of the breaks experienced in the water system over the years occurred in the organization’s regular cast iron mains.

That does not mean that cast iron mains have not held up over time, however. Some of the area’s pre-Civil War mains are still in use, he said.