In late spring, Lancaster city plans to embark on its largest water infrastructure project since it upgraded its two treatment plants a decade ago.
The goal: Construction of a new water main parallel to the 42-inch transmission main running from the Susquehanna River to the city.
The existing cast-iron main dates to the 1950s. Typically, about 12 million gallons of water per day pass through it — a measure often abbreviated “mgd.”
In recent years, the frequency of leaks has increased. As the line ages and corrodes, it’s less able to withstand shocks. There’s a lot of construction around it these days, raising the risk of damage from blasting, heavy equipment traveling over it, or an excavator inadvertently hitting it, said Cindy McCormick, deputy public works director.
A major rupture could be “catastrophic,” she said.
The most serious leak by far occurred in 2012. It led to water loss of 2 mgd to 4 mgd — that is, up to a third of the main’s normal throughput. It cost “well over $200,000” to repair, McCormick said.
Repairs since then have been more modest, costing about $25,000 to $30,000 in all, she said. There has been no service impact to water customers, she said.
The city has also had to make repairs to distribution mains, such as those in Quaker Hills, but those are separate issues from the transmission main.
Serves a quarter of the county
The city’s water system serves not only the city but thousands of customers in neighboring townships and boroughs: more than 47,000 accounts in all, representing more than 140,000 people — about a quarter of Lancaster County’s population.
More than 200,000 county residents are served by other public and private water systems, according to state figures; the rest have on-site wells.
The transmission main supplies about two-thirds of the Lancaster system’s service area, providing water treated at the Susquehanna treatment plant to most of the city, plus suburban customers to the north, west and south.
The remaining third is served by Lancaster’s other treatment plant, which draws from the Conestoga River on the city’s east side. It’s less than a mile from the distribution system and is connected to it by multiple lines, so the issue of a single, aging main doesn’t arise there.
As far back as the early 1990s, the city was looking at whether it needed a new Susquehanna water main.
Building it will provide a backup to the existing main and allow it to be taken out of service and repaired, McCormick said.
A 2003 master plan recommended building a redundant main within 10 to 15 years. The problems in 2012 accelerated concerns, leading to a 2013 study that evaluated various repair and replacement alternatives.
The city concluded that a redundant main made the most sense: Without it, the city would have to build temporary bypasses to repair the main section by section. Design began shortly thereafter.
The new main will not expand the city’s service area, McCormick said. Nor is it being installed to add capacity within the system boundaries — the limiting factors come from other system components.
The city continually assesses capacity to ensure it can meet demand, McCormick said.
Three phases planned
The first phase of the project involves laying about seven miles of pipe between the Oyster Point reservoir in East Hempfield Township and the city. It will be built of ductile iron, which is stronger and less brittle than cast iron.
It’s budgeted at $34 million and will take about 2½ years, McCormick said.
The budget covers some related work besides the main itself, including $1.4 million for a supply line to a controversial water tank the city plans to build on School District of Lancaster property in Lancaster Township.
The second phase of the project will run about six miles of pipe between Oyster Point and the city’s Susquehanna water treatment plant; the third will connect the Susquehanna River and the treatment plant, about one mile.
In 2013, the second phase was estimated at $13.5 million and the third phase at $4 million, but costs have risen since then, McCormick said.
No timeline has been set for the second and third phases, but the goal would be to complete all three phases within 10 years, she said.
The city engaged the global firm Black & Veatch to design the pipeline. A Lititz firm, ARRO Consulting, is assisting with obtaining permits.
The $34 million for the first phase will come from more than $100 million in capital bonds the city issued last year.
The city will recover the money through water rates. Rates are expected to rise, but Patrick Hopkins, city director of administrative services, said he couldn’t predict how much. Rate cases are complex, and capital projects are just one of the factors that come into play.
Changing rates for city residents requires a City Council vote. To raise rates on suburban customers, the city must apply to the state Public Utility Commission.
Current rates for average residential accounts using 12,000 gallons are $66.48 per quarter in the city and $70.52 outside it. Comparable rates elsewhere in the county range from less than $50 to more than $100.
Road work ahead
Like the existing main, the new one will be underground, mostly under or near local roads. There will be flaggers, lane closures and detours as sections of road are excavated to lay the pipes, McCormick said.
Bids for the first phase will be opened this month, she said.
The work requires permits from the Pennsylvania departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation, as well as street-opening permits from East Hempfield and Lancaster townships. That’s all proceeding normally, she and township officials said.
The city also has had to obtain 14 easements: one from East Hempfield Township, one from a residential property owner, and 12 from commercial properties.
One of the latter involved an eminent domain proceeding, McCormick said. Negotiations with three property owners remain ongoing. The easements so far have cost about $200,000, she said.
The residential property easement wasn’t for the redundant main itself, but for a connector needed for it to serve a housing development, she said.
Recent rate history
In 2009, the city completed its retrofit of the Susquehanna and Conestoga treatment plants, including installation of state-of-the-art microfiltration systems.
Reported at the time as “the largest public works project in city history,” it cost around $90 million — the equivalent of nearly $105 million today.
The city then went to the Public Utility Commission seeking a suburban rate increase of 99 percent. The treatment plants weren’t the only reason: The city had lowballed some earlier rate increases and had to play “catch-up,” Hopkins said.
The commission ultimately authorized a 65 percent increase, which took effect in mid-2011.
In 2015, rates increased again. For typical residential customers, they rose about 27 percent in the suburbs and 23 percent in the city. That was followed in 2016 by one more increase in the city, of about 7.5 percent, resulting in today’s rates.