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    Boston’s underground vulnerabilities need fixing

    Boston 11/30/2016 Water main break that has flooded the intersection of Washington and Kneeland streets in Boston's Chinatown section Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Photo by Thomas Adams)
    Photo by Thomas Adams
    A water main break flooded Washington and Kneeland streets in Boston’s Chinatown section Wednesday.

    Boston has plenty of aging infrastructure needs in plain sight. But on Wednesday, it was a problem that couldn’t be seen that threatened businesses and the massive morning commute into the city.

    A 125-year-old cast-iron water main that broke in the early hours of Wednesday brought much of Boston’s Chinatown to a standstill, causing traffic delays and monetary losses to small businesses that had to close due to extensive flooding and water damage. Even though it’s too soon to tell what caused the pipe to break, the breach underground underscores the city’s vulnerabilities.

    About 22 percent of the city’s 1,000-mile network of water pipes is more than a century old, with some dating back to the 1840s. Yet the Chinatown pipe rupture cannot be explained as simply a result of old, neglected infrastructure. It was refurbished 32 years go, and officials thought it had plenty of years left.


    Nor is age a perfect indicator of risk. According to John Sullivan, chief engineer of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, a water main underneath the Boston Common is 168 years old and remains functional after being reinforced in the 1980s. “That pipe may last another 100 years, easily,” he says, “because there are no outside influences like traffic or construction.”

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    With an $80 million annual budget, Sullivan’s agency is in charge of identifying needed repairs, and generally does a good job. “Nationally, the average number of water main breaks is 270 pipes per 1,000 miles,” he said. “We have between 30 and 40 on average each year. We are extremely low compared to everyone else in the country.”

    Yet, the Chinatown rupture was the second water main break in the downtown area in recent weeks. Residents shouldn’t have to live in trepidation of having the ground literally shift beneath them. And if it’s your restaurant’s inventory that just got destroyed, one water main break is too many.

    “The goal is to have zero pipe ruptures, but you can’t predict how each section of the pipe will perform,” said Sullivan. Boston’s development boom may have had an impact; nearby construction can damage the system.

    To find out, BWSC conducts regular studies to analyze the stability of the city’s water system. In 2011, one such report recommended that 11 miles of aging pipeline needed to be replaced each year for the next 20 years to sustain the system, a goal that has been met since, according to the BWSC. Additionally, the agency uses a sophisticated leak-detection program.


    But, according to a water expert quoted in the Boston Herald, the city needs a more proactive approach to its ancient pipes, including the use of pressure testing and smart meters that would automatically report problems. More investment may be needed to insure future stability. Fixing underground pipes will never be as exciting as building new bridges or other more visible pieces of infrastructure, but the costs of water main breaks to businesses and residents are all too real.