Michigan's aging water system threatens more problems

- The water main break in Farmington Hills is sparking communities to take a closer look at their own infrastructure.

More than 300,000 people were affected by the water main break on Monday. Four cities are back online but there are still 8 cities who are under the boil water advisory. Local experts say the break could be a microcosm of what the entire state could face soon.

"Water is really so cheap for our customers - on the average, across the states, it's probably a penny or less than a penny per gallon," said Brian Steglitz with the Ann Arbor Water Department.

Steglitz thinks there are more major problems like this buried underground and are doomed to bubble to the surface. 

"There are times when the blisters can break as they age and then you will get dirty water calls and complaints. It will be yellow orange and red. We do our best to control this but one of the challenges that's facing utilities: we need to replace cast iron mains."

His theory is water is an after thought: It flows to the tap through under ground lines, out of sight - out of mind. It's only when a break in the line happens that the issue is brought to attention. 
"We are dealing right now with a lot of the short term vision; what do we need to do to get the water out tomorrow? We need to be looking at the 10-20 year plan and make sure we have the infrastructure in place to sustain it," he said.

 Water mains are built to last nearly 100 years and according to Steglitz, some of the pipes depending on the age of the city are reaching that critical point.

"The frequency of interruptions will definitely increase - that's probably the short term."

If and when it breaks? Look no further than the Oakland County cities affected by the 48-inch wate rmain break on 14 Mile in Farmington Hills. 

Much like replacing roads however the price tag for a fix is hefty: we're talking billions of dollars. Change will have to come at the local level.

"Water is unique. It's typically not funded through a tax. It's funded through rates. You pay for the water pay for the services."

It's hard to get tax payers to part with that money especially for something they don't see making an immediate impact. It also means having leadership willing to ask people to pay for the future rather than pay for band-aids every time an aging main breaks. 

"It could be a few percent, 5% increase in what people are paying across the whole state," Sterglitz

The question remains will people be willing to fix something that isnt broken - yet?

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