PORTLAND – Water district officials say that a “considerable amount” of its water mains are beyond their useful life, meaning leaks and breaks like the one on Dec. 19 that spewed thousands of gallons of water onto Bayside streets could happen again.

Officials say they don’t expect to see more catastrophic breaks like that one, which spilled 20,000 gallons of water per minute for 45 minutes near Somerset and York streets. That water main break caused significant flooding, damaged private and public property, and triggered a 24-hour boil-water order for the entire peninsula.

“The biggest event that could have happened, I think, happened,” said Christopher Crovo, executive director of asset management and planning for the Portland Water District. “It was a very unusual break.”

The Somerset Street break, however, highlighted the state’s aging water delivery systems and the lack of funding to keep that system in good repair.

The Portland Water District provides water from Sebago Lake to about 190,000 people in 11 communities, from Raymond to Cape Elizabeth, including Portland and South Portland, through a 975-mile network of pipes, ranging in age from 1870 to 2012.

Two transmission lines — dating from 1912 and 1939 — supply water to the district’s 11 communities. The redundant capacity would allow the district to maintain water service if one of the pipes fails, Crovo said.

About 10 percent — or nearly 100 miles — of the district’s water mains are more than 100 years old, which is considered beyond the pipes’ useful life. But it’s not the oldest pipes that are breaking at the highest rate.

Crovo said pipes from the late 1800s are made of thick cast iron that could probably last 200 years. But pipes laid between the 1920s and the 1930s are seeing the most failures. Crovo said the scarcity of metal during the two world wars and lower levels of craftsmanship are largely to blame.

About 87 miles of pipe was laid during that period, according to district records.

While breaks could become more common as the system continues to age, Crovo says they won’t be as severe as the one on Somerset Street, given the size of the pipes involved and their locations. He noted Somerset Street’s low-lying location.

Only 100 miles of the pipe system owned by the Portland Water District are 20 inches wide or larger. Those pipes typically run along major roadways in Gorham, Westbrook, Portland, South Portland and Falmouth.

The rest are smaller mains with fewer connections to businesses and residences. They do not cause as much damage when they fail and take less time and money to fix.

The 20-inch Somerset Street main, which dates back to 1912, was large because it used to carry water from a 2-million gallon reservoir on Munjoy Hill. That reservoir was taken out of service in 2003.

A portion of the Somerset Street main — from Franklin Street to Elm Street — was replaced with 16-inch pipe in 2003.

Crovo said the district had been planning to replace the rest of the 20-inch main next year, when a major development project is expected to move forward in Bayside.

INCREASED INVESTMENT

Meanwhile, district officials say that factors besides age play a major role in causing water main breaks, such as road construction and weather.

If there is a stretch of cold weather, but not a lot of snow to insulate the ground, frost can cause pipes to break even though they lie 51/2 feet below the ground, Crovo said.

Annually, the district replaces about 3.5 miles of pipe that’s 75 years or older, at a cost of $3 million. That’s short of Maine Public Drinking Water’s annual target rate that recommends replacing at least 1 percent of a system’s water mains.

The district is not expected to hit that 1 percent annual benchmark — 10 miles of new pipe a year — until 2023.

Water District spokeswoman Michelle Clements said more than $400 million is needed to fix and replace pipes that are 60 years or older. But the district’s general manager says the district’s replacement rate is still better than most others in Maine and around the country.

“We’re way ahead of the curve in terms of renewal and replacement,” said Ronald Miller, the district’s general manager.

The American Water Works Association says a “reasonable goal” for annual water main breaks in North American is 25 to 30 breaks per 100 miles of pipe.

This year, the Portland Water District has experienced just over six breaks per 100 miles of pipe, Clements said.

While it may appear as though the area is seeing an increasing number of main breaks, the number of breaks has actually been steadily decreasing since 2009, which saw nearly 140 breaks. That compares to only 75 this year.

The district has experienced 23 breaks in the last four months, including eight in December.

Clements said the perception that there have been more breaks is attributable to the district getting better at using its website and social media to spread the news of main breaks.

“If there is a break that affects traffic, people have a better way of getting the information,” she said.

Clements said water district trustees are committed to increasing their investment in water main replacements by $500,000 a year until 2016, when the district will be investing $5 million a year.

The district prioritizes its main replacement schedule to coincide with other ongoing major road projects, which can save anywhere from 10 to 25 percent in replacement costs, Crovo said.

About 2.5 miles of replacements are chosen because they coincide with other road projects, while the remaining mile is dictated by leaks or breaks. Consumer complaints about water quality are also factored into the replacement schedule.

Miller said he would like to invest more money into water infrastructure, but the district is also trying meet new federal mandates for treatment.

For instance, the district is currently spending $12.8 million on a new ultraviolet treatment system near Sebago Lake. Only $300,000 is being funded through a state grant.

“That is not something we would have done,” without a federal mandate, Miller said. “From our perspective, that money would have been better spent in main renewals.”

STATE OF THE STATE

While state agencies are tasked with testing water quality and approving water rates, no agency is responsible for assessing the state of water infrastructure.

The Public Utilities Commission oversees only water rate increases. The Maine Drinking Water Program monitors water quality and provides low-interest loans and grants for infrastructure upgrades. The program has distributed $180 million since 1997.

Program funding is distributed based on a district’s annual work plan, said Roger Crouse, director of the Drinking Water program. Water utilities are not required to report their long-term infrastructure needs to any agency.

“It’s just not a piece of data I think anyone is collecting,” Crouse said.

The Environmental Protection Agency typically conducts a needs survey every four years. But that report only samples a few districts and extrapolates the state’s needs from there, Crouse said.

REPORT DUE IN 2013

A new report is due in early 2013, but the most recent report dates back to 2003. At the time, the EPA extrapolated that Maine needed a $900 million investment over 20 years. “I expect the number will be at least that,” Crouse said.

The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2012 gave Maine’s water infrastructure a grade of C+, a slight improvement over last year’s C grade.

While $900 million in investments are needed, the ASCE said only $22 million in state and federal funding is available annually, creating a potential shortfall of more than $500 million over a 20-year period.

“While there has been improved funding for treatment, storage, filtration and security issues, the funding gap is significant in regard to aging distribution systems,” the group wrote in its report.

There are about 1,900 public water systems in Maine, but only 150 are municipal utilities regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.

State law delegates oversight of water infrastructure to local trustees. Local control has its benefits and challenges, Crouse said.

On the upside, local officials are closer — and can be more responsive — to the needs of their community.

But local trustees also face pressure to keep rates low, rather than setting rates at a level that would allow each district to maintain its infrastructure.

“Times are tough. Most boards of trustees for water districts are very frugal,” Crouse said, noting some trustees refuse to increase rates. “That’s really to the detriment of the utility.”

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings