Infrastructure program gained traction in '09

The work now being done to replace pipes and streets is seen as a start on the work needed around the city.



Signs of progress in the long haul of revitalization of the city's infrastructure will be an ever-more-common sight as the years go by. But this tangible mark is still in its infancy as a program.

WALLA WALLA - Infrastrucure (noun): (1) the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization); (2) the permanent installations required for military purposes; (3) the system of public works of a country, state or region.

Merriam-Webster's third definition of infrastructure is undoubtedly what city of Walla Walla public works planners were referring to when they first introduced their Infrastructure Sustainability Plan in late summer of 2009.

In the months to follow, city officials would add some creative funding options (municipal bonds) to help reduce utility rate increases for the first two years of the program and kick off construction to a full start in 2010.

They also changed the name to Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan, which is now referred to as the IRRP.

On occasion city officials will also call it by a single word, sounding like the last name of the famous Western hero know as Wyatt Earp.

Whatever you call it, the heart, artery and veins of the IRRP are still the same: How best to replace the 140 miles of city water and sewer pipes, of which 115 miles, roughly 82 percent, are said to be in failing status.

Though repairing streets is an attractive element of the IRRP, road improvements are more like the icing on the cake. It's what everybody wants, but isn't what makes a cake a cake.

What makes the IRRP and infrastructure plan is the repair and replacement of water and sewer pipes.

Without failing pipes underneath, IRRP funds cannot be used to replace or even slightly improve the roads above.

IRRP projects can be as much as 20 times more expensive on average than just fixing roads because along with tearing up and laying down new pipes, several crucial feet of compacted gravel and sand must be added to protect those pipes.

According to public works officials, a grind overlay on a 22-foot-wide street can cost about $25,000 for a quarter-mile stretch.

To replace the pipes and road on a quarter-mile stretch of Morton Street between Third and Chase avenues, the city spent approximately $500,000.

The IRRP will raise only about $4.5 million per year by 2015. Additional, dedicated tax revenues will tack on $450,000.

So at best, the city will be able to fund only about two miles of pipe and road replacement each year, which means it will take about 93 years to do them all.

So how do city officials decide which streets to replace first?

For years public works crews have been compiling data on underground leaks.

Using water consumption figures to measure potable water entering the pipes, then comparing those figures to what customers actually receive, the city was able to determine it is losing a billion gallons of potable water a year.

That's enough to fill about 150 Olympic-size swimming pools (about twice the length of the pool at the YMCA).

As for leaking sewer pipes, the science is not as exact.

City officials have determined that in winter months, when the ground is mostly saturated, nine million gallons of wastewater are treated each day. In summer months, that figure drops to less than half.

The possibilities are: People are creating half as much sewer waste, which is highly unlikely, or drier soil allows more leakage from broken sewer pipes into the ground.

So the leaks exist, but how does the city pinpoint them?

Long before the IRRP ever came into existence, the city had been using video cameras designed to travel through pipes in search of breaks.

The result was that Bryant Avenue and Morton and Palouse streets became the first IRRP projects in 2010 because of excessive potable water and sewer leakage.

This year, IRRP funds are being used to replace failing water and sewer lines for Figueroa, Bonsella, Estrella and Whitman streets.

In 2012, the city will complete a $1.7 million IRRP project in the Edith and Carrie avenues neighborhood on the north side of town, with more than half paid for by a Community Development Block Grant.

Also slated for work next year are sections of Third and Stahl avenues.

Projects for 2013 and beyond have yet to be determined, but there is no shortage of streets to choose from.

Public works officials have developed a 40-year work map of every street that needs infrastructure replacement, which includes streets from every neighborhood in the city.

On a number of occasions, city officials have said you could throw a dart at that map and most likely hit a street where both water and sewer pipes are leaking.

To help speed up the replacement schedule, city officials expect the IRRP will win them major infrastructure grants, which has already proved to be the case for next year's work on Edith and Carrie.

The city said it will turn that grant money around and put it right back into more IRRP work.


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