Erie County needs $1 billion in water system improvements

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — It’s estimated it would cost Erie County Water Authority $1 billion to replace hundreds of miles of old pipe that run underground.

But the authority is taking a piecemeal approach — at this point — to maintain the cost of bringing water to and from homes to prevent bills across the region from sky-rocketing.

Although it may not seem like it, 2016 actually included fewer water main breaks than the year prior.

But the late-July break in Amherst wreaked havoc because of the number of people whose pipes suddenly went dry in the middle of the summer.

Such breaks are a part of the water delivery system. In Erie County, much like the rest of the state, that system is old, dating back to World War II, and even the turn of the century.

“First of all we’re playing catch-up with the aging infrastructure,” said Water Authority Chairman Earl Jann. “There’s no way that we can replace all the miles of pipe really quickly because of the number of miles in the system.”

New York State Comptroller Thomas Dinapoli said this week it would cost $40 billion over the next 20 years to repair and replace the water systems across the state.

“I was happy to see they were acknowledging the fact that this is a problem,” Jann said.

Jann says he feels the state’s pain. The county’s water system is among the largest in the state outside New York City.

And this region’s unique. In addition to the pipe’s age, the weather, soil condition and even the temperature of Lake Erie take their toll on the county’s water system.

“In an urban area, where most of this older pipe is, you’re looking at approximately $2 million dollars a mile,” Jann said.

Replacing the whole system isn’t feasible, or fiscally possible, especially in the short term.

“Our estimate is, in today’s dollars, about $1 billion to replace that cast iron pipe,” Jann said.

Jann said replacing 700 to 900 miles of cast iron pipe will be done a little at a time, about 10 miles a year, at a cost of about $20 million.

That’s manageable for the water authority, Jann said, especially since their focus has changed from giving the county’s two water plants and its multiple water towers priority over the delivery system.

And it should be manageable for rate payers as well. Jann said there are no projections for any major increases for at least the next five years.

Jann also said the county should receive some money from the state to help offset the cost of ongoing replacements, and the Trump administration has promised $1 trillion in infrastructure investments. Because neither is guaranteed, neither source appears in the authority’s projected budget.

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