Small towns seeing big problems with water lines

When leaks and breaks in old lines need repairs, testing the water and flushing the lines can get costly.

Small communities across the Tri-States could be seeing increases on their water bill.

Aging water systems cause frequent boil orders which become costly and inconvenient.

"Municipal and public water supplies are the best source of safe water. Even bottled water is not regulated nearly as well as public water supplies and you're just trusting what the label says," Bill Bainter said.

Bill Bainter is a licensed operator for 15 water systems in small communities in Illinois. While he is confident that tap water is safe, he's also concerned about the costs of keeping up or replacing aging water systems.

"The water pipes, a lot of them, were put in at the same time back in probably the early 40s. So some of them are 70-years-old. We're seeing a lot of problems nowadays," Bainter explained.

The costly installations of steel pipes were put in around the same time period when President Roosevelt began government programs to create jobs. Now that those pipes are rusting and need replaced, government grants are hard to come by as budgets are cut.

No matter how big or small a town is, if it uses its own water supply, regular testing is a requirement to make sure the water is up to EPA standards. This means the right amount of chemicals must be added to make sure water born bacteria is killed and the level of harmful contaminants is below requirements. When leaks and breaks in old lines need repairs, testing the water and flushing the lines can get costly.

"Regulations probably cost the consumer money," Bainter said.

Replacing rusted old steel water lines with modern plastic lines is no small project. New lines can cost more than $20,000 per mile. New plastic lines being installed in Pike County, Illinois near the town of Milton have about an $8 million price tag, and Bainter says only so much of that cost can be returned from the water bills for the households the lines will serve. In LaBelle, Missouri, replacing the town's dated system will cost about $2.5 million.

"The biggest obstacle would be number one, securing the financing" Mike Logston, the engineer working on LaBelle's new water system explained.

Logston worked with around a dozen small communities on updating their water system. State and federal money is available to help offset the cost of the project but some of the cost could still end up on water customers.

"Sometimes the bookkeeping systems in the small towns, the users have a small fee. Its understandable the residents will just understand that there might be an increase in their water rates. But to have safe and dependable water sometimes that happens," Melody Whitacre with the regional planning commission said.

Voters in LaBelle decided in February to approve taking out bonds to cover some of the costs of the project, but progress on the new water lines won't start for months. Right now residents of the town are dealing with frequent boil orders and interruptions in service. The design of the old system was lacking shut off points to isolate interruptions in service.

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