Madison residents can expect a significant increase in their future water bills as the city's water utility ramps up plans to replace roughly half of the water mains in its system. This comes as Madison experienced more water main breaks in 2013 than at any other point since the utility began keeping records in 1980.
"It's a difficult situation to perceive," said Adam Wiederhoeft, a design and construction engineer with Madison Water Utility. "It's buried underground. You can't see it. It's worked for decades. So until you actually see the problem, it's hard to realize that a problem could be there, just kind of ticking and waiting for its opportunity to present itself."
Utility crews repaired 306 water main breaks in 2013, up from 221 in 2012. The vast majority of those breaks came from cast iron pipes, sand and spun, that were laid at the beginning of the city system's history but predominantly during the city's boom after World War II.
At the time, the utility did not take into account the corrosiveness of soils and groundwater on the cast iron pipes. They've become brittle and break easier than the ductile iron pipes, which also have a wrap over them that the city began installing in the 1970s.
"(The cast iron pipes) are everywhere that the city was growing in the post-war period. You look at how the city grew, and it was on fire," said Tom Heikkinen, Madison Water Utility's general manager. "That pipe is everywhere."
It represents 400 miles, or roughly half of the city's 800 miles of water mains. The goal is to replace those 400 miles over the next 40 years, but at a cost of $1 million a mile, consumers can expect to pay more. Heikkinen said it's also not just the mains that need replacing.
"It's all the wells, the pumps and the booster stations where we boost the pressure. It's storage tanks, water towers, it's all part of a connected system that works to provide water to people," he said. "We've been able to rest on our laurels for so many years because the system's been doing fine, but it does age over time, and we're in that rebuilding era now."
"I'd like (consumers) to know their water bill is going to be increasing in the future," Heikkinen said.
He said the utility will go before the Public Service Commission to request rate increases of up to 9 percent each year for the next several years. He said the current rate Madison water users pay puts them at or below the average for Wisconsin utilities of similar size.
"We've tried to make the case that we need to invest more money in our system," he said. "This does have to be paid for, and we need to raise rates to do that."
While Heikkinen said the goal of fixing 10 miles per year should stay ahead of the problem, Wiederhoeft describes it as a race against time.
"We have a lot of areas in the city where we can anticipate and expect to see main breaks," he said. "We're approaching 50, 60, over a 100-year-old pipes in our system that are still active, and many of those are in bad need of replacement. It's kind of a cross-your-fingers situation, hoping they don't break."