BEND, Ore. - Underneath the streets of Bend, 480 miles of sewer system run through the ground. A recent discovery of a broken century-old sewer line prompted city officials on Thursday to point to problems lingering beneath the streets.
"We have capacity issues in certain parts of town where the lines are too small to handle the flows. We obviously have aging pipe lines in some areas, and we also have odor issues in some areas," Bend Public Works Director Paul Rheault said Thursday.
It's an issue that Bend city councilors say is on the forefront, with major upgrades planned down the road. They've commissioned an advisory group of 18 people looking for the most cost effective options.
Many people might be surprised to learn that replacing the aging sewer and water pipes beneath Bend's streets are not part of that major sewer upgrade or the controversial, multimillion dollar surface water project.
"I hate to say it, but the water project is a small project, compared to all of the different sewer project that are potentially going to happen," City Councilor Mark Capell said. "That's why we're being very careful and looking to optimize the sewer investments."
Public works officials said Bend saw phenomenal growth in the 90's and early 2000's. Now they feel the pressure to get the infrastructure up to par. Rheault said if people want the community to prosper, they have to update the sewer system.
"Unfortunately, it's combined with a recession, and during these economic times there is very little federal monies to help us out, so the burden will fall on the backs of the citizens here in Bend," Rheault said.
After seeing the mess left behind from Wednesday night's incident, Capell says it's yet another infrastructure issue councilors will have deal with.
"The pipe basically disintegrated and disappeared, and it was flowing through where the pipe had been," Capell said. "They found it during a routine investigation of the system, and luckily they caught it before it had become a real mess."
It was just the first of two long, cold nights in a row for Bend's underground repair crews – Thursday night, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Friday, utilities workers will shut Reed Market Road between Third Street and Division in another major project, to replace a failing water service line.
Underground work is a fact of life for just about any city. But these kinds of jobs also show that decades-old infrastructure will fail one day – and even with Bend planning many millions of dollars in sewer and water upgrades, that won't head off such issues arising.
Rheault said a sewer overflow last week led to some work with a TV camera snaking through the sewer lines, looking for problems.
On NE Olney Street, between First and Second streets, they "found major sections of the pipe missing," Rheault said. "Soils had washed out, so there was a fear of a sinkhole" or sewer line failure.
The city contracted with Jack Robinson and sons for the work, expected to take until about midnight. The eastbound lane of Olney Avenue was diverted onto First Street until the work was done.
Fortunately, another line in the area meant the city was able to bypass the flow, meaning no loss of service, also putting into use some bypass pumps the city has had for several years.
"We've had to shut some water off, though," in the immediate area, since a water line also runs along the same street, Rheault said.
"It's nice that we found it ahead of time," before more serious problems occurred, Rheault said. "A tip of the hat to the staff – they bought some parts a few years ago, and if they had not been available, they would have had to be flown in from the East Coast."
Crews working in the deep trench said it appeared at least some sections of the 16-inch-wide clay pipe date back to 1913, nearly a century. The hole was dug in a spot where the clay pipe hooks up to presumably newer cast-iron pipe.
The emergency sewer-line work is expected to cost $25,000 to $30,000.
While a legal fight brews over a controversial water system upgrade, another, potentially even costlier sewer upgrade plan is going before a new citizen stakeholder panel, helping to determine just how much work needs to be done, how soon – and who will pay, how much. All of the final decisions are in the city council's hands.
Rheault said the sewer system upgrade is needed to handle more sewer capacity, as lack of capacity has been causing some tricky planning as businesses move in or seek to expand.
"This is more of an age issue," he said, noting that the sewer upgrade work does not include replacing older lines such as the one that failed beneath Olney Avenue.
Instead, he said, "there are ways to bring in a new coating" for older lines, to shore them up and give them an extended life.