The unusually cold weather in Portland and other parts of the state this winter brought some attention to the area's aging water infrastructure. The Portland Water Bureau normally deals with about 200 broken water mains a year, but the freezing temperatures caused even more breaks than usual. Ten occurred in just three days over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, bringing the weekly total to 45. One broken main disrupted traffic on busy Barbur Boulevard near downtown Portland—though since the break occurred on the MLK holiday itself, the impact was less than it could have been. The broken Barbur main was 75 years old.
In mid-December, a broken main closed Southeast 82nd Avenue for a period of time and disrupted water service to both businesses and residences. Two days later, a main failed on 2nd Avenue in downtown Portland. These two pipes were more than a hundred years old—dating to 1906 and 1912.
In fact, the Portland Water Bureau calls winter "Main Break Season." More than half of Portland's pipes are made of cast iron, which tends to become brittle and break during cold spells. Most of the cast iron pipes were installed before 1960, so they've been in the ground at least half a century. It's not a matter of if they will fail, but when. "Main Break Season" may get longer and more disruptive in coming years.
Nationally, the American Water Works Association estimates that it will cost more than a trillion dollars over the next 25 years to repair or replace buried drinking water infrastructure that is reaching the end of its useful life. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that Oregon alone needs more than $4.4 billion to repair and replace both water and wastewater infrastructure.
Working on water and wastewater systems disrupts traffic, businesses, and households. Costly repairs also increase water and sewage rates for business and residential customers. But next time you're stuck in traffic because of underground pipe repairs, or wondering why your water bill is going up, look on the bright side and think of those poor old tired pipes that you're helping to retire.