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Cleveland water main breaks mount, leaders believe federal money needed

Single digit temperatures test aging water system
Posted at 10:31 PM, Jan 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-03 09:28:13-05

Single digit temperatures have exploited Cleveland's aging water system, as a series of water main breaks plagued all parts of northeast Ohio over the past couple of days.

News 5 covered major water main breaks on Triskett at W. 126, Lorain Road at Rocky River Drive, and on Holland Road in Brook Park.

The growing number of water main breaks caused water service interruptions, closed roads and produced boil alerts.

The Cleveland Division of Water has been responding, and has committed $26 million a year through 2021 to water main replacement, but Cleveland Councilman Michael Polensek believes there is no way the utility can keep pace with critical upgrades on its own.

Polensek said massive federal dollars are needed to help replace northeast Ohio's aging water system, which includes some water mains that are 150 years old.

Polensek said Cleveland water customers are tapped out, and can't help with growing replacement costs, after dealing with a recent 82 percent rate hike.

"State, county, city, we're in desperate need," said Polensek.

"What am I dealing with almost weekly now, people on fixed incomes, elderly, working poor.  They can't afford to pay anymore utility bills."

The Cleveland Division of Water has replaced nearly 80 miles of suburban water mains over the past 10 years, but Polensek said that only represents less than 2 percent of the 5,300 miles of water mains in the Cleveland system.

Former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis told News 5 a desperately needed infrastructure bill is being talked about in Washington, D.C., but he believes there is little chance it will become a reality in 2018.

Rokakis believes residents need to take action and fight for federal water main replacement dollars.

"So you're going to pass an infrastructure bill, does that mean it will work its way down to the City of Cleveland water department," said Rokakis.

"Residents should call their congressional offices, they should call the U.S. Senate offices. Tell them we have to come up with an infrastructure bill that helps to resolve some of these issues."

The Cleveland Division of Water issued the following statement in response to our story:

“Over the past 30 years, we have invested more than $1.6 billion in our infrastructure, including the modernization of all four of our interconnected water treatment plants. This means we are well positioned to dedicate an increasing amount of our capital budget to replacing aging water mains. Currently, we spend approximately $26 million a year replacing aging infrastructure buried underground. This means, over the next five years, we plan to spend nearly $130 million upgrading water mains which are often out of sight and out of mind to the general public.

These investments – along with our investment in automated meter reading technology and our on-going leak detection efforts – are paying dividends in terms of water loss. Over the past four years, the amount of unbilled water, or water loss, has declined nearly 14% which supports our overall goal to be more efficient and has helped us not raise rates for the past three years.

This work is financed almost entirely by the rate payers in our local communities. However, in order to meet the long-term investment need, it is important that all levels of government be part of the solution. There are several state and federal programs – such as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) – that, if fully funded and leveraged to fullest extent, could spur additional investment and improvements to our local water quality and economy. We are continuing to work to identify opportunities to leverage and improve these programs.”