Millbrae Residents Learn About Risks of 60 Year Water System
Last week, the Millbrae City Council, staff from the Public Works Department, and community members joined for the first Millbrae Water Infrastructure Study Session. During the open meeting, Millbrae Public Works Director Ray Chan spoke about the state of the City’s water system and challenges the department is facing in trying to maintain it.
“We have a 60-year-old water system. Most water infrastructure has a typical useful life of 50 years,” said Chan. “We are spending more than 40% of our funds on operations, maintenance and emergency repairs. This kind of emergency response is not sustainable and we need to start planning to gradually replace the system.”
Millbrae’s water system was primarily built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Deficiencies in the system became apparent in 2013 when seven water mains broke at the same time, causing thousands of Millbrae residents to temporarily go without water until public works crews were able to repair the broken pipes.
“When a water main breaks, we are obligated to fix it within 24 hours. For many of our emergency repairs, they are only temporary fixes. A complete replacement would take weeks. It’s unreasonable to ask residents to go without water to their homes for that long,” said Chan in response to a question from a Millbrae resident. “A planned replacement schedule is more appropriate for the system, as it allows continued water service to be provided.”
Millbrae’s 75 miles of pipes provide clean water to 23,000 customers. Because of continual responses to breaks in the system and increased wholesale water costs, the City’s budget for long-term capital improvements has shrunk by more than 60% over the past 7 years.
“The major problem we are facing is the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has raised our wholesale water rates by 176%. Since we haven’t passed those increases on to our customers, we have significantly less funding to do permanent main replacements,” said Chan.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides Millbrae with 100% of its water from a variety of regional sources, including Hetch Hetchy. In 2012, in order to address long needed attention to its own infrastructure backlogs and ensure reliable water sourcing, the SFPUC began a $900 million infrastructure upgrade to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Since then, in order to finance those improvements, the SFPUC has progressively increased its wholesale water rates for Millbrae and other cities in the Bay Area. Instead of passing these rate increases on to residents, Millbrae’s water utility is paying for these increases by deferring needed capital improvements.
In 2009, Millbrae used only 30% of its budget to pay for water from the SFPUC, leaving 70% of customer revenues to fund operations, maintenance and capital improvements. Today, it spends more than 50% for water purchases, even taking into account decreases in annual water usage, leaving fewer dollars for proactive capital improvements and system replacements.
“We need to shift from continual emergency repairs to preventative maintenance,” said Chan. “Public Works recommends replacing 2% of the City’s water pipelines each year over a 50-year period. This replacement rate can be increased to 4% or more, but the 2% rate reduces financial stress on the City and would lower the impacts of street construction interruptions on residents and businesses.”
At the City Council’s direction, the Public Works Department will host two more study sessions in the near future to review system repair options and funding needs. Times, dates and locations of those will be announced as they become available.