News Flash

City of Ithaca News

Posted on: February 27, 2019

Water Main Break- 200 Block North Cayuga Street


This weekend’s water main break under the 200 block of N Cayuga St between Buffalo and Seneca Streets caused significant damage to the road and forced a closure of the block. The break washed out the support materials for the water and gas lines and damaged much of the support materials beneath the asphalt surface. Unfortunately, it has become clear that to avoid further damage to the road and utility lines, and to prevent damage to vehicles, a complete rebuild is necessary before traffic can be allowed back on that section of road.

The City is still developing a full schedule, but the work will involve removing the pavement, digging up and replacing the water and sewer lines, replacing the sand bedding around the gas line that was washed away by the water leak, and then rebuilding and compacting the subsurface. Finally, a base layer and a top coat of asphalt will be laid down. This whole process will likely take until May, in part because the City cannot complete the work until the asphalt plants reopen in the spring.

The City has been seeing an increasing number of water main breaks in recent years (see figure below), and this winter has had one of the highest number ever. In recognition of this fact, last year Common Council voted to add a new crew to the Water and Sewer division to help make more progress in replacing the underground infrastructure.

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Like most cities throughout the United States, Ithaca’s water and sewer infrastructure was built over 100 years ago and needs to be replaced. The City has over 90 miles of underground water pipe, with an average age of over 80 years. One third of the pipes are over 100 years old, with some approaching 150 years. The pipe that broke was 89 years old. The City is seeing a record number of breaks this year, driven by a combination of pipe age and an increased trend in freeze thaw cycles due to climate change.

Much of the nation’s water infrastructure was built with substantial federal assistance, but as reported in one article, “the federal government's share of water infrastructure spending has plummeted from about 75 percent to about 3 percent in the past 35 years… The result is that state and municipal governments are often forced to shoulder an impossible expense.”  There has been some recent rhetoric at the federal level about reinvesting in the nation’s infrastructure, but so far no action has been taken. In the meantime, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a grade of D+.

The City, unable to wait for federal assistance, rebuilt its water plant in the last few years, which has driven an increase to water rates. And though it would be ideal to rapidly replace all the water and sewer pipes in order to minimize the leaks and breaks, the increase in costs, and the disruption from all the construction, would be too much for taxpayers and businesses to handle. So the City is taking a measured approach through the addition of the new crew for Water and Sewer.

Similarly, Common Council added a new streets crew in the 2019 budget to help accelerate the rebuilding and repaving of the City’s streets. The work on our streets and the water and sewer work will need to be coordinated to avoid digging up recently repaved roads in order to repair water main breaks. Unfortunately, to some extent this will be unavoidable, as breaks can occur anywhere at any time. However, the City is confident that through this judicious investment in our infrastructure, we will finally get ahead of the problem.

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