Westminster's Big Leak CARROLL COUNTY

March 17, 1993

News that as much as 27 percent of Westminster's drinking water is lost somewhere between the treatment plant and the town's spigots should serve as a reminder that public works don't last forever. Although city officials are not sure where the nearly 582,000 gallons of water disappear daily, no one suspects there is a water thief. The probable culprits are aging water mains and meters.

As Public Works Director Thomas E. Beyard pointed out to the City Council recently, the water system is like a human body. It ages, and it breaks down. The same goes for roads, bridges, schools, libraries and public buildings.

Once these public amenities are built, no layman gives much thought to their aging -- which is understandable. Many of the roads we drive on, bridges we cross and post offices we patronize were built six or more decades ago and work just fine. However, much of our infrastructure is operating on borrowed time. The problem is that we notice the deterioration of these public structures only when they fail completely or the maintenance costs become overwhelming.

During periods of austerity, such as the last three years, maintenance budgets are the first to be slashed. The unfortunate consequence is that failure to make the routine small repairs results in very expensive rehabilitation projects.

Most elected officials don't feel any urgency to preserve maintenance budgets or sink large sums into upgrading old water lines. Unlike a new project that is easy to show off and take credit for, repair of leaking water mains, broken meters, rusty expansion joints in bridges and cracked sidewalks don't excite voters and, thus, politicians. Nevertheless, a mechanism is needed to ensure that repair and maintenance projects are protected when budgets are cut.

For the past seven years, Westminster has known that it has been losing about a quarter of the water it treats. This represents a loss of about $500,000 each year, or $3.5 million since the problem was discovered. The city is hiring a consultant to make recommendations.

It is quite likely that the city will have to raise a considerable amount of capital to repair its creaky water pipes. The bills resulting from neglect of past years are now coming due. Other government officials would be wise to take note.

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