After Excavating Roads 15 Times in 4 Years for Aging Pipes, Ledyard Warns of the Inevitable

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GALES FERRY – Since 2017, roads in the Christy Hill neighborhood have been excavated 15 times to repair aging water pipes that town officials say are too expensive to replace.

Ahead of Ledyard’s $650,000 re-paving of the subdivision, Public Works Director Steve Masalin sent the usual notice to the neighbors – but with the caveat that the new pavement could soon be dug up again to repair the pipes.

Masalin said that the pipes have been repaired 6 times since 2020, and 3 times this year.  According to Masalin, the breaks have been particularly frequent along Ledgewood Drive.

“The whole network is prone to failure, but more in certain areas,” said Masalin. “I didn’t want people to get caught off-guard, so I put it out there because the issues were so much more widespread here than some of the ones we’ve done previously.”

Gales Ferry is served by two water companies. The older neighborhoods, like Christy Hill, that were built in the 1960s and 1970s are served by the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority.  The newer developments built since the 1990s are served by Groton Utilities, based in the neighboring town.

According to John Cansler, the  Southeast Connecticut Water Authority general manager, the newer system has not had issues, but breaks in the older system are relatively frequent.

A side effect of the aging water infrastructure is that every time a pipe breaks, the authority has to dig up the road above it, then patch it closed. The result is a series of patches on the road that aren’t always level with the regular road surface – a situation Masalin said will be especially stark on a freshly-paved road.

Masalin said he works closely with the water authority to coordinate work, and the authority was able to complete some scheduled work in the neighborhood ahead of the paving. But they can’t control or plan for pipe failures – and based on the history of the water system in the neighborhood, those failures are inevitable, he said.

Cansler said the water main breaks are a product of working with a 60-year-old water system, and the high cost of replacing – at a rough cost of about $100 a foot, replacing 2.5 miles of water main in the subdivision would cost well over $1 million — which he said was prohibitive.

Aging pipes are a common problem for water systems saddled with old infrastructure. Some municipal-run utilities have their eyes on federal money as an opportunity to finally replace water mains, both from a possible infrastructure package, and from COVID relief funds in the American Rescue Plan Act

But water systems like the Southeast Connecticut Water Authority, which are operate independently of a municipality, aren’t eligible to receive funding directly for that work, Cansler said.

“I’d be perfectly happy if Ledyard wanted to take their pot [of money] and fund replacement of those pipes,” Cansler said. “That would be great. Unfortunately, the money is not coming directly to the utilities.”

With no clear path to fixing the underlying issues with old pipes, Masalin asked the town Public Works Commission to consider creating a policy for how utilities repair roads after they dig them up to do their work. He said he thought a policy should define what kind of patching needs to be done for the scope of work. For example, if they dug a trench in the middle of a lane, the policy would say the utility should pay from the shoulder to the centerline, instead of patching over the trench.

Cansler said the water authority already spends extra money to patch the road in a way that makes the patches as level as possible.

“A few years ago, on a road [Ledyard] recently paved, we hired some machinery to go back in the spring and heat up patches that were on the road – not just ours – to level off the road,” Cansler said. “You can only do that at certain times of year, so not in the winter, and sometimes we patch a road and then go back and repair several patches at a time.”

The commission discussed a review of policies at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which requires any trench longer than 10 feet to be repaved using machine-laid asphalt – and in some locations, requires milling and repaving the entire area between the nearest pavement joints.

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