Local water system managers are trying to keep pace with ‘outdated’ infrastructure

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OMAHA AND WAHOO, Neb. (KMTV) – Residents of Jackson, Mississippi have learned firsthand that the water flowing from our faucets is not something to be taken for granted. But the latest crisis, days without water pressure, is not the first time the city has had water problems.

In addition to the floods, many point to the weakness of the city’s water infrastructure.

But across the country, water infrastructure is less than ideal, experts say. The number of water main breaks is on the rise.

The American Waterworks Association calls it “the era of replacement.” Much of the country’s water infrastructure has been around for a long time, but it doesn’t last forever. The nation was “chronically underinvesting” in infrastructure, according to a report by the Value of Water campaign and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“We inherited a really aging and outdated infrastructure,” said Ryan Hurst, utility manager at Wahoo. “It’s time to make investments in replacement.”

But Hurst said those efforts were spurred by the federal infrastructure bill passed last year. He made a request for funds which he expects to be partially forgiven.

“We’ve seen and had our fair share of water main breaks here in Wahoo,” he said. “And so we try to take those corrections and avoid further failures.”

Water supply disruptions are also becoming more common in Omaha. The area covered by the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD) has grown steadily over the decades. In 2021, there were 566 water main breaks.

MUD has a plan to “get ahead,” said Micheal Koenig, vice president of water operations.

Part of the plan: to increase the number of kilometers of water mains replaced each year. Since 2008, the utility has averaged 8.3 miles of water pipes replaced each year. But it was much higher in 2020 and 2021: 13.4 miles and 14.2, respectively. It is targeting 17 replacement miles and eight condition assessment miles by 2025.

Hurst and Koenig, both board members of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Waterworks Association, said weighing infrastructure replacement with keeping rates low is a delicate balance.

“Keeping these (rates) affordable while challenging ourselves to always be mindful and complete these projects and improvements at the lowest possible cost is in our best interests and the taxpayers’ best interests,” Koenig said.

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