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Crumbling Sewers Set Off Scramble

The Des Moines Register
(c) Copyright 2004, The Des Moines Register. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Crumbling sewers set off scramble
Jason Clayworth

For the second time in five days, city crews have shut down a Des Moines street over fears that crumbling sewers would cause a collapse and engulf vehicles.

The emergency repairs will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the city's public works director predicts that more such situations lurk below.

"Last week it was Locust. This week it's Grand. Next week it could be University or Hickman," director Bill Stowe said Tuesday.

* Grand Avenue's eastbound lanes from Second Avenue to Robert D. Ray Drive were shut down late Monday after "we found there to be an alarming void under the surface," Stowe said. "There was alarm enough that, as caution, we wanted to get traffic off." That portion of Grand Avenue could be closed for up to a month as emergency repairs are completed.

* Most of the 600 block of Locust Street was closed for four days last week due to deteriorated sewer lines that caused a partial collapse.

The problem under Grand Avenue was detected by a special automated camera that was snaked under the street as part of a regular inspection. A hole about 3 feet wide was found in the sewer's brick lining beneath the concrete surface of the street.

The larger problem is that much of the city's sewer system is more than a century old and constructed of brick. Many sections have outlived their projected life span by 50 years, which has left city leaders scrambling.

"They're like human beings. They're not meant to last over 100 years in most situations," Stowe said.

The dangerous section under Grand will be rebuilt within the next five years as part of a larger $20 million project, he added.

City leaders in 1998 approved nearly $50 million in sewer or storm water projects to be completed over five years after flash floods backed up sewer systems and caused millions of dollars in damage across the city.

About 10 of the original 53 sewer projects remain to be done, but at least three dozen have been added to the to-do list. Stowe's department in December put together a new 20-year plan that calls for more than $100 million more in sewer repairs. More than 3 1/2 miles of sewer will be replaced in the first five years of the plan.

Old sewers have caused problems across the nation, said John Thibodeau, a spokesman for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, of which Des Moines is a member.

The Washington, D.C., group wants federal officials to help develop long-term financing solutions.

The Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accounting Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree that the price tag nationwide approaches $1 trillion, Thibodeau said.

"It's a huge problem, and where is that money going to come from when things get out of hand?" Thibodeau said.

Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities, said some cities have delayed inspections to save money.

Des Moines has made improvements since 1998 that have alleviated some of the problems on the city's east side, said Fran Koontz, a planning and zoning commissioner. However, she said the city must step up sewer improvement efforts.

"My God, take a look at what is underneath downtown," Koontz said. "It's like huge, cavernous rooms. Think if it collapses. It's a tragedy waiting to happen."

Teri Witt was one of about 700 homeowners who suffered damage from a flash flood in June 1998 that backed up the sewers and flooded her basement in the 800 block of Hartford Avenue.

She said she doesn't want a repeat.

"I lost everything in my basement," Witt said.

Council members in 1998 increased sewer charges to help pay for the improvements. A family that used 7,500 gallons of water per month, for example, saw an increase of about $7.50.

In December 2002, council members raised the monthly storm water utility fee, which makes up a portion of the sewer bill, from $4.60 to $5.29 a month. The increase generates about $1.2 million a year. City leaders also agreed to raise the rate 5 percent each year through 2010.

City Manager Eric Anderson said crews frequently inspect the sewer systems, and the partial closure of Grand Avenue was a precautionary tactic. He predicts at least $200 million in Des Moines sewer improvements during the next decade. He stressed that an injury caused by a sewer collapse is highly unlikely.

"We constantly have to check and work on the sewers," Anderson said. "We will occasionally get collapses, but I don't think it's rational for people to be concerned that they're going to fall into the sewer system."



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