City Council Holds Hearing on City’s Water and Sewer Infrastructure and Looking Ahead to the Future

The City Council Committee on City and Neighborhood Services, chaired by Councilor Ed Flynn, held a hearing on December 14 regarding water and sewer infrastructure in the City.

Water and sewer issues are prevalent in neighborhoods like the Back Bay, South End, and Bay Village where there are many private alleys and houses on pilings in the Groundwater Conservation Overlay District (GCOD).

John Sullivan, Chief Engineer at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), and Christian Simonelli, Executive Director of the Boston Groundwater Trust, were on hand to present information and answer questions from councilors and the public.

Councilor Flynn said that with the “recent development boom” in neighborhoods across the City, he wants to ensure that new buildings “don’t overburden the system,” and that the “integrity of our infrastructure is maintained.” He also said that private sewers and alleys that abut commercial and residential properties is an “issue of concern in the South End.”

Councilor Kenzie Bok said that “I think that water and sewer infrastructure is the fundamental bones of our city,” and acknowledged “just how fundamental it is to our constituents’ lives each day.”

John Sullivan gave a presentation on the BWSC, saying that the Commission was created in 1977 to keep the City’s water and sewer systems “in good shape.” He explained that the water system is gravity-fed and run by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA).

Sullivan explained that Boston “continually used more and more water” from 1901 and peaked in 1976, when 151 million gallons per day were used by Boston alone.

But as the years went by, Boston has consumed less water. He said that in 2019, 62.13 million gallons a day were used, which “assures us that we will have adequate water supply for our residents.”

Sullivan said that the City has 1,008 miles of water main, 12,730 hydrants, and 17,854 gate valves. A water main from 1848 is still in operation under the Boston Common, he said, and “old pipes don’t mean anything as far as the operation of them.”

Sullivan said that according to the Water Research Foundation, the average number of water main breaks per year is 250 breaks per thousand miles of pipe.

He said that Boston has “about a thousand miles of pipe,” and from 1993 to present, the City has between 35 and 40 water main breaks per year on average. “It’s virtually nothing,” he said.

“This shows that our system is solid,” he said. “We’re in very good shape for a very good structural system of pipes delivering water to all of our neighborhoods.”

Sullivan also talked about some of the major projects that the BWSC is involved in, including a water main replacement program, a sewer and drain replacement program, and city-wide illegal connections investigations, among others. The BWSC also has a lead replacement program, a Leak Up to Owner program to help repair leaking residential water service pipes, and sewer lateral financial assistance, in which assistance is provided in repairing waste disposal pipes connecting to a main sewer.

The purpose of this Policy is to allow residential properties on private ways open to public use or travel which are not connected to the Commission’s sewerage system to connect to the system, and to allow residential properties on such private ways whose connection to the Commission’s sewerage system is in a state of disrepair or is inadequate to meet the needs of such properties, to be repaired or made adequate.

To help deal with private sewers in alleys, the BWSC offers a “betterment assessment” program, which allows “residential properties on private ways open to public use or travel which are not connected to the Commission’s sewerage system to connect to the system, and to allow residential properties on such private ways whose connection to the Commission’s sewerage system is in a state of disrepair or is inadequate to meet the needs of such properties, to be repaired or made adequate,” according to the BWSC.

Christian Simonelli explained that while the Boston Groundwater Trust works closely with the BWSC, the BWSC is “not responsible for maintaining groundwater.” He said that about 20 years ago, the Boston Groundwater Trust had about 150 monitoring wells and was “just starting to get a hand on where the water table was.”

The Boston Groundwater Trust also has information about buildings that indicates where the tops of pilings are, and has been able to “target specific areas that have depleted levels.”

The organization is also responsible for the “no harm” component of new construction in the GCOD. An engineer must sign a no-harm letter for any below-ground work in a GCOD district that states the work will not have any “negative impact to the water table,” Simonelli said.

He said that “one of the bigger challenges going forward” will be digging down and putting in underground parking in neighborhoods like the Back Bay and the South End, as there is an increasing desire to do this.

“If it’s not put in right, you’re going to be putting those buildings immediately at risk right away,” Simonelli said, as disturbances to the water table affect the pilings that rowhouses and other buildings in these neighborhoods sit on.

Councilor Kenzie Bok wondered if or how BWSC expects to incorporate green infrastructures like bioswales or permeable pavement. She said she knows that going from “gray to green infrastructure” requires “more routine maintenance versus set it and forget it items of the past.”

Sullivan said that the BWSC has been studying this for several years, and there is a green infrastructure pilot in East Boston. He also said that BWSC has been working with Boston College for a number of years on their green infrastructure system. He said they are studying how these systems need to be maintained (as well as the cost of maintaining them) as well as when they need to be replaced.

The University of New Hampshire is also running tests in Audubon Circle related to holding “the first inch of rain,” he said.

Sullivan also said that the BWSC has been “working with several people in the South End,” ad after working with the Mayor’s Office, agreed that the “burden” of rallying neighbors for the betterment policy shouldn’t fall on the neighbors. “We’ve all agreed we would do that,” he said, including knocking on doors and making people aware of the program.

Carol Blair, president of Chester Square Neighbors, said there are several private stone and mortar sewers in the neighborhood. She also said there are five private alleys “in our small neighborhood,” along with many buildings that are owned by nonprofit organizations that cannot allocate funds to replace the pipes. She also suggested that green infrastructure be installed in the alleys, but a plan needs to be developed “to help figure out how to pay” for these improvements and replacements.

“We need modern sewers to support public health in the City,” she said.

Sullivan said that the BWSC “will take over a sewer if it’s a private alley open to public travel.” It does not own pipes in backyards leading to private driveways. He said he would contact Blair and “see what we can do, what we can’t do, and we’ll proceed from there.”

Simonelli also talked about ways someone can tell if a building has an issue with its pilings. One is if a hole, called a test pit, is purposely dug and examined by an engineer see what the condition of the pilings is, and another is if there are visible “settlement issues” like cracks above windows or doorways, bulges in walls, and uneven floors.

“Thankfully, since I’ve been here, those are far and few between,” Simonelli said. 

He said that “in the event the building is compromised and needs to be repaired,” there is no insurance or program to cover the costs of repairs. Simonelli said the “best thing to do proactively” is to address areas that may have a negative impact and install pumps in basements.

He said that some people may not know the history of buildings on pilings, so it’s “important for us to get the word out.”

Martyn Roetter of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said that his home on Beacon St. in the Back Bay backs up to a private alley that has no fire hydrants, and he wondered if it was possible for them to be installed.

Sullivan said that there are no public water mains on many of those back alleys, and the BWSC spoke with the fire department “several times,” but it was determined that it would be a “massive, very expensive undertaking to build a public fire protection system back there,” adding that that the fire department said they are still able to fight fires without public connections in these alleys.

Roetter also wondered why the usage of water in the City has declined over the past few decades.

Sullivan said that building codes have changed, and things like more efficient toilets are now standard in the code. “As a public, we’ve also become more educated,” he added, like installing low flow shower heads or turning off the water to shave or brush teeth, but “really it’s the building codes that control that.”

Councilor Flynn said he is going to keep this hearing in committee and may have another hearing on this topic sometime in February or March.

“This is just so fundamental to our City,” Councilor Bok said.

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