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          Front Page

City's Pipes Springing Leaks

By Rosalie Rayburn
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          It's been a wet summer in Rio Rancho, but the moisture problem has nothing to do with the monsoon.
        July this year was memorable for the record number of city water lines that sprung leaks: 110 service lines that carry water from the street to individual meters and 11 main lines.
        "That's more than we have ever had in a one-month period," said Larry Webb, the city's utilities division manager.
        Every leak meant one of New Mexico's most precious resources was lost, homes had to go without water for many hours, sometimes days and streets had to be dug up and repaved.
        Webb said the problem is likely to get worse as polyethylene pipes installed between 1985 and 1995 continue to deteriorate. Replacing them would cost millions of dollars. An estimate for a three-year "blitz" plan to replace problem service pipes was $30 million.
        That figure doesn't include the cost of replacing the main pipes in problem areas. Whatever the final total, the city doesn't have the money for a quick fix.
        Faced with evidence that the problem is increasing, City Manager James Jimenez told city councilors recently that the city needs to make a policy decision soon.
        He has asked city staff to analyze the problem and suggest a range of possible solutions for councilors to consider this fall.
        One way the city could raise the money would be to introduce a special fee for water utility customers, Jimenez said.
        He believes it would not be prudent to ask voters to approve bonds because it would mean an increase in property taxes. (The $25 million bond issue voters approved in March for road projects did not raise property taxes because they replaced other bonds the city was retiring.)
        At present, money for water line repairs and pipe replacement comes from the rates that water and sewer customers pay. The amount spent on repairing leaks has increased as the city's water pipe network continues to age. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, the city spent $391,000, and the following year the amount rose to $565,000, Jimenez said.
        Then there's the amount of water lost and the inconvenience to city residents. Webb estimated at least 3 million gallons spilled into the ground annually in Rio Rancho because of pipe leaks.
        Councilor Michael Williams said he's had about two dozen calls this year from constituents who have had water line leaks in their street. "Their biggest concern is how long it takes to get repaired. It usually takes about 48 hours before a city crew can respond," Williams said.
        The areas affected include parts of the Vista Hills, Cedar Hills and Corrales Heights. Older parts of town typically have service lines made of copper, which has held up better, Webb said.
        Rio Rancho is not the only city to experience costly problems because of polyethylene pipes. Around 1992, the city of Albuquerque had to spend roughly $30 million out of water rate revenues to replace polyethylene service pipes installed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Areas affected included Taylor Ranch on the West Side and Cherry Hills near San Antonio and Wyoming, said Roy Robinson chief operating officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
        When polyethylene was introduced, Robinson said, it was lighter, cheaper and more flexible material than copper and industry experts thought it would last longer.
        But over time, polyethylene became brittle and leaked. Robinson said constant pressure variation, chlorine used to purify water and soil conditions could all put stress on the pipes.
        Rio Rancho is replacing the deteriorated polyethylene service lines with copper tubing. Main lines are replaced with a different type of plastic that appears to be more robust.
        But Webb and Robinson caution that only time will tell.

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