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Water main breaks focus attention on aging pipes

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DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Recent water main breaks that released millions of gallons of water in downtown Duluth and Minneapolis have focused attention on aging underground pipes that are common in other cities as well.

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In Duluth, a water main break gushed 3 million gallons on New Year's Day, requiring an estimated $35,000 in repairs to the street and a line that was installed in 1887. Duluth spends about $2.3 million each year to fix breaks and leaks in 426 miles of underground pipes, half of which are more than 80 years old. Mayor Don Ness said the city needs to replace the pipes, not patch them.

But that's been a tough sell.

"From a political standpoint, there's no upside to investing in underground infrastructure. People take it for granted, and they don't think about it until it's not working," Ness told Minnesota Public Radio for a story that aired Tuesday (http://bit.ly/Wt5JJa ).

In Minneapolis, the pipe that spilled an estimated 14 million gallons last Thursday was installed in 1890. It broke because of a construction accident and was in excellent condition, a half-inch thicker than newer pipe, said Marie Asgian, the city's superintendent of water distribution.

But it was a reminder that a 2007 federal study estimated Minnesota's drinking water system needs $6 billion in repairs and upgrades. That doesn't include the fixes that the city's sewer systems need, which state officials estimate at another $4.5 billion.

An American Water Works Association study predicts water rates in some communities could triple within the next 25 years to pay for infrastructure upgrades. Small towns will be especially hard hit because they can't spread the bills out among as many households, said Nancy Straw, CEO of West Central Initiative, a community foundation.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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