... but they are not bagpipes.
The pipes are clay, steel, cast iron, lead, concrete and plastic. They are the pipes that bring water to your home, take your waste away, or drain stormwater from your cellars or yards. These pipes, and the systems they are connected to, are telling us they are in trouble.
Just how much trouble became evident in the news this past week: $158 million is needed to fix Oneida County Sewer District problems, $152 million to fix Utica sewer problems, and $140 million to fix Mohawk Valley Water Authority problems. Not mentioned were New Hartford's vexing storm water management problems, only a small fraction of which will be resolved by a $2 million bond recently approved by voters, and already almost entirely committed. Fixing these systems will cost literally thousands of dollars for each and every resident in the region. Could bankruptcy be around the corner? Or another bailout?
Drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems are related. Public drinking water and wastewater systems are usually located together to allow higher population densities to develop than what would be possible with private wells and septic systems. Conversely, higher population densities are required to make such systems fiscally feasible. The relationship is simple: drinking water goes into homes and businesses, wastewater comes out. Stormwater needs to be managed not only to protect people's property, but to protect the drinking water and wastewater systems. Stormwater picks up contaminants. If stormwater makes its way into a public water supply, the water becomes undrinkable. This happened in Amsterdam, NY, during the 1990s, forcing the entire city to use bottled water for a couple weeks. Stormwater that gets into the sanitary waste system takes up expensive treatment plant capacity, causes treatment plant or system upsets that spill waste into our streams or backs sewage into people's homes.
Given the relationship of these systems, it would make sense to have one unit of government manage them, but this is not the case locally. Wastewater treatment and part of the collection system has been turned over to the County. Drinking water has been turned over to an authority. Stormwater and wastewater collection from homes and streets remain assigned to local municipalities, of which there are many. Why do we need multiple organizations, each with their own administrators, engineers, laborers and equipment, to take care of what is mainly a bunch of pipes? It should be obvious that significant costs could be saved by merging these organizations, but that is only part of the story that the pipes are telling us.
Since pipes are necessary for intensive land development, they could be used as a planning tool. They are, after all, maintained by the public through taxes and fees. Should not we, the public that pays the maintenance costs, determine where these pipes go? Here in Greater Utica we do not. The part-county sewer district is run by the board of legislators, half of whom have nothing to do with the district and answer to interests other than the people living in the district who pay the bills. The sewer district is solely concerned with wastewater. The water authority is run by appointees who are not answerable to voters and who represent a variety of interests that also may not represent the people affected. The authority is solely interested in selling water. The creation of the sewer district and water authority removed water and sewer services from effective public control and turned them into mere commodities instead of the planning tools that they should be.
Once water and sewer were turned into commodities, it became easy for the suburbs to develop vacant land in their own self-interest. With the sewer district and water authority socializing their systems' costs across the entire region, city residents' water and sewer fees subsidized suburban sprawl. If this sprawl lowered population density back in the city increasing the per capita cost of city services, it was not a concern to the suburbs because there was no effective regional organization to stop it.
The result has been a vast expansion of water and sewer infrastructure into the suburbs, with negative growth in regional population. When 100,000 people are encouraged to spread themselves over double the area, the cost of maintaining services to them -- all services -- must increase. The $450 million bill to fix water and sewer issues is only the tip of the iceberg that sprawl has created for us. Add in the costs for extending other services outward (police, fire, new courthouses, new fire stations, etc.), and we may have already sealed this region's doom.
The fact that our pipe systems pass through several jurisdictions hinders solutions to problems. For example, it might make sense for New Hartford to send some of its storm water flows downhill into Utica's stormwater system. However, that would place an increased burden on Utica's system, and Utica would get nothing in return. Similarly, there is no incentive for Utica to remove storm water from its combined sewers to free capacity at the County's treatment plant when that capacity will further suburban expansion.
The astronomical bill we have just been given is the result of our prior "regionalization" of water and sewer services while maintaining our mini-sized local governments. The whole has no control of its parts. We have created an infrastructure that far exceeds the requirements of our population. If we are able to somehow get federal money to throw at the problem, it will only enable the status quo to be maintained. Without a wholesale reorganization of local government, the situation will develop again.
The pipes give us water and take it away. The pipes enable development. They are also unforgiving. Extended too far they become a burden. They are begging to be controlled, but by whom?
The pipes tell us the answer. Where they are located defines the true extent of our city, and it extends beyond Utica's limits. The pipes tell us that the urbanized suburbs and Utica must merge, and the new enlarged city must take over the sewer district and the water authority. If we do not do this, the pipes will destroy us.
[This article was originally published in the February, 2009 "Utica Phoenix."
Be sure to pick up the March, 2009 "Utica Phoenix" to read "Don't Confuse Sprawl with Growth" --- Now available in a news rack near you]