- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - In Rutland, the oldest drinking water pipes were laid three years before Abraham Lincoln became president, and they are still carrying water to some residents. Other sections of the 100 miles of buried drinking water lines date to later in the 19th century, others the first half of the 20th century. About 20 percent of the system is past its designed life expectancy.

The city has the outline of a plan to repair the city’s aging drinking water infrastructure: “It will take a million dollars a year for a hundred years,” said Rutland Public Works Director Jeff Wennberg.

And that’s in a city of about 16,500, with one of the lowest median income levels in the state, and they’ve got to start now, he said. “Pretty much everything is going to go to hell in the next 25 years; that’s just the math,” he said.

In most places across the country, the promise of clean, cheap, readily available water has been taken for granted, but that has begun to change. Farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, drought has taken its toll on reservoirs and wells, and the aging underground networks of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses rupture all too frequently. Just as with crumbling bridges or congested highways, the solutions don’t come cheap.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.

There are about 1,400 public water systems in Vermont, from the largest communities down to systems that serve as few as 25 people, and many of those face the same challenges being seen around the country, said Eric Blatt of the water supply division of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

“That’s what we anticipate in Vermont is really going to be the major area of expenditure for public water systems moving ahead,” Blatt said.

It remains to be seen whether Rutland can embark on a 100-year plan, but one thing is certain: Meeting those challenges would be even more difficult without the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation’s drinking water system.

Despite the need, the fund has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, according to a review of data by The Associated Press. That is largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.

In Vermont, about $13.4 million remains unspent - about 5.3 percent of the $176.8 million the state has received since the program began in 1996, but it’s usually more to do with communities not completing the paperwork they need to be reimbursed rather than not taking advantage of the program, Blatt said.

“We have communities where there have been, particularly the ones that have pretty sizeable loans, long periods of time without their submitting pay (requisitions),” Blatt said.

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