This past weekend I noticed water was pooling around my water meter in the median between our sidewalk and the curb. I couldn’t discern whether this was a matter of gravity, following days of rain showers, so I placed this observation in my memory buffer since there didn’t appear to be any burbling or current feeding the puddle. By Tuesday, it hadn’t rained for 48 hours and the pool seemed a bit larger than I recalled. More troubling was a slow but steady seepage from a standpipe connected to the meter enclosure. I immediately suspected I would need to call the Denver Water Board sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, I decided to give the creeping pond another night, just to be sure.
Our Denver Square was built 115 years ago, and I presume its connection both to water mains and sewer pipes has gone unrefreshed and, likely, uninspected for at least a century. Last summer a Water Board crew spent a few days digging in front of a house down the block, but I opted not to wander down the street to find out what was happening. My philosophy regarding home maintenance is to let sleeping dogs lie. This risks calamity, of course, such as the hungry carpenter ants that hollowed out our front porch and which we discovered only because of mysterious piles of sawdust accumulating beneath the porch stairs. Fortunately, we executed repairs before it was necessary to determine the limits of our homeowner’s coverage.
By Wednesday morning water was lapping over the curb and trickling down the gutter, an ominous development. I called the Water Board’s leak number to report our concern and was promised an inspection visit first thing Thursday morning. Promptly at 8:30 AM a young man arrived who indicated we almost certainly had a serious problem that would require digging up both the connection from the meter to the main in the middle of the street and also replacing the connection from our house to the meter, both of which were likely antique lead pipes. He promised a supervisor would be arriving soon to confirm that hunch. Within an hour his supervisor arrived, pumped out the water standing in our meter enclosure, and agreed with the first damage assessment. Our water was turned off, which probably means the leak had developed between the meter and the main. In subsequent conversation we were informed there are more than 79,000 Denver Water Board customers with similar, aging lead pipe connections that will need to be replaced.
It was 2 p.m. before the repair crew arrived. A half dozen workers blocked off the street and promptly marked the asphalt after locating our underground piping. They evidenced the precision of a military operation with each employee undertaking specific tasks. A backhoe broke the asphalt and then lifted debris into a dump truck. Another truck carried fresh dirt to refill the eight by eight-foot cut in the street. Caution had to be exercised as a gas main also runs parallel to the water main, which was located five feet beneath the street. A cable was snaked through the lead pipes and attached to copper replacements. As the old pipes were extracted, new ones were pulled into place. It was a pretty slick trick. We were given a water filter to use for the next week to protect against any dirt or residual lead that may have broken free. The crew ordered pizzas at 6 p.m. and completed their work by 7 p.m., just five hours after they arrived.
I write about this because so many politicians are quick to trash public sector employees. No one was leaning on shovels here. Instead, they were jumping into muddy holes in knee high boots with shovels in hand. They were also soldering new connections in our basement and in the manhole they installed for a new water meter. You could sense the pride this crew took in its teamwork. It was hard not to be impressed with their efficiency and professionalism.
A private developer pays close to $10,000 for a new or replacement water connection. The fiscal challenge of replacing aging infrastructure is evident, however, when you multiply the 79,000 homes requiring replacements. Even at half the retail price, they present a nearly $400 million-dollar price tag. This is only a tiny sliver of what Colorado has deferred for roads, sewers, bridges, school buildings, water treatment and maintenance. It’s difficult for local governments to pass these kinds of costs on to our kids in the form of debt, although some will try. The fact we have sufficient water for incoming residents is largely because previous generations of taxpayers were willing to make infrastructure investments that would never benefit them personally. As we ponder TABOR, perhaps we should consider what democracy owes Colorado’s future.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.