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Friday, May 11, 2018

Water distribution, the most expensive thing you can’t see

The water that you use and drink every day travels from the mountains around the Loveland and Berthoud Pass basins through creeks, streams and distribution ditches into Standley Lake. After a stay in Standley Lake, the water moves to one of the city’s two water treatment plants. Once the water is treated, it still has miles to go before it reaches your home or business.

Underneath the streets of Westminster is the city’s largest, most expensive and most complicated part of the water system. You never see it, but without it there would be no water for you to use.  

The city owns and maintains over 575 miles of pipe ranging in size from 1 inch to 5 feet in diameter. Some of these pipes have been in the ground since the mid-1900s and some were installed last year.  

How long does a pipe last? Good question. While different types of pipe have different lifespans, other factors such as the soil around the pipe and pressures in the pipe all affect lifespan. In general, we usually count on over 50 years for a pipe. 

Other underground city infrastructure includes over 33,000 water meters, 15,966 valves, 4,736 fire hydrants and assorted other devices like pressure reducing valves and blowoff assemblies. City staff works hard to ensure that the insides of all this infrastructure are kept clean so that it arrives to your home or business ready to use. That in itself is a major responsibility and requires constant testing and disinfection when needed, though the small amount of chlorine in the water helps to keep the system clean.

Keeping the distribution system going and safe is one of the most expensive and critical jobs city employees perform. Replacing one mile of pipe can cost about $4.5 million, and it is not convenient for anyone. All the work happens in the city’s streets and everyone has experienced the related traffic and access issues. 

How we operate the system can have a big impact on condition. Some projects have installed pressure reducing valves where system pressures are high. These valves can greatly reduce the risk of pipe failure. We send cameras through sections of pipe to assess the condition so that we can proactively target pipes for replacement before they fail, saving the city millions of dollars. We even look at ways to fix aging pipes from the inside out, without digging up the streets. All the valves and fire hydrants in the city must be turned on and off periodically to ensure they will function when needed. Not a small task.  You may see city workers flushing the system using fire hydrants to clean out the pipes and make sure the water is fresh.

In addition, current water meters are at the end of their lifespan so the city well be replacing all 33,000 over the next two years at an estimated cost of $12 to $16 million.

As you can imagine, all these efforts represent a major portion of the city’s annual expenses. The annual budget for the day-to-day operation of the water distribution system is about $5 million. Over the next 5 years the cost is about $28 million.  

And that is just scraping the surface, so to speak. As our water distribution continues to age, much of the pipe installed during earlier building booms will need replacement and the cost will be significantly more.

With all this in mind, it is important to remember that the city is able to do all this work while keeping water rates below the regional average. As the city’s costs continue to rise, so will rates. While no one is happy about rising rates, the city is always focused on providing the best service for the lowest possible cost. If you are having trouble paying your water and sewer bills, the city has programs to help.

Get more information about the city's water bill assistance program.

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