CASPER, Wyo. — Every two years, state Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, needs to call a plumber.
The sewage and water lines on his property that connect to the city’s pipes in the Sunrise neighborhood of southwest Casper are more than 50 years old. Roots and other subterranean intruders find their way into the old lines. The plumbers send “snakes” down into the old pipes to clear the debris. But it’s only a short-term fix, Perkins said.
“One day the lines will need to be replaced,” he said.
Perkins is not alone in the below-the-surface battle that has residents all over the city and state waiting for the day when they will need to replace their antiquated pipes.
Public water lines are in need of replacement, too. At 122 years old, the state is undergoing its fourth round of replacements and improvements of its underground water infrastructure, said Mark Pepper, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems.
In an era when PVC is now the standard, many of the materials underground are outdated. A large share of pipes in cities, towns and counties throughout the state were put in the ground around World War II, said Newcastle city engineer and former engineering consultant Robert Hartley.
Ten years ago, Pepper uncovered wooden pipes in Douglas that were installed prior to World War II.
After the war, communities across the state started using pipes made of clay or a cement-asbestos mix that only had a 20-year lifespan, Hartley said. Many people worry about the asbestos, but the pipes’ materials don’t pose a threat, he said. The problem is when pipes burst. If water lines break, there’s usually a domino effect. Roads, power lines and other public utilities often fall victim, said Pat Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“Once pipes fail, the cost is a lot more than doing planned repairs,” Natale said.
There is no way to quantify how many miles of public drinking water and wastewater lines that cities, towns and counties are responsible for maintaining in Wyoming, but about $50 million in public funds are spent on renovating pipes every two years, Pepper said.
There are too many projects in the state to keep track of, he said.
“It’s everywhere,” Pepper said.
Douglas, Bar Nunn, Casper, Cheyenne, Green River, Rock Springs, Gillette and Newcastle are only a few of the cities and towns that have seen upgrades in their water systems in the past three years.
A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers suggests that the state needs to spend $300 million to modernize its drinking water systems during the next 20 years. It says the state additionally faces a $156 million bill to bring its wastewater infrastructure up to date.
There isn’t a single community that doesn’t need to improve its water-based infrastructure, said George Parks, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.
Pipes age and technology improves at a faster rate than what local governments can afford to keep up with, Parks said.
“The challenge of keeping up to date has been around for a long time and will continue to be around for a long time,” he said.
The state’s Clean Water Revolving Fund — money that’s designated for sewer systems across Wyoming — has 128 projects on its priority list for 2013. The state’s drinking water revolving fund has 181. The estimated cost of all the projects is $71 million, according to a report from the Wyoming Department of Equalization.
A bevy of funds pay for maintaining sewer and drinking water systems in the state. Property taxes, sales taxes, legislative appropriations to local governments, and a mix of federal funds from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide the cash to pay for the state’s underground water infrastructure. With the budget belt-tightening at all levels of government cutting into public projects, efficiency is the key, Parks said.
“Pipes can be ticking time bombs,” Hartley said. “A common error is when towns build new streets and then a pipe bursts. The nature of people is that you don’t see or care about what’s buried, but they want the water when they push the tap.”
The replacement of old pipes not only prevents a great risk for pipes bursting, it also saves water and keeps utility rates low, Parks said.
“We’re running a tighter ship today than we did 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s going to stay that way.”