PITTSBURGH — Nobody likes the idea of pipes bursting in their own home. Water gushing down the walls from the upstairs bathroom. The ceiling paint curling and turning dark. The floors warping from moisture even days after the water is gone.
Imagine those pipes bursting in your home every year. Now, imagine pipes bursting at a larger scale, happening across an entire town.
Every single year.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District has seen an increasing number of projects to help small and distressed communities meet their water-related infrastructure challenges.
The district approved nine new water infrastructure projects in the last three years, funded under the Water Resource Development Act of 1936, or WRDA Section 219, program which offers cost-sharing aid to towns in Allegheny County and Northern West Virginia.
Before 2019, the district partnered with only one project funded by Section 219 in this region.
“Our environmental infrastructure programs have exploded here in the district because there's a lot of need out there,” said Scott Swansinger, project manager for the Pittsburgh District. “There's a lot of local municipalities that don't have the money to complete these projects, and that's where we come in: to provide that assistance.”
WRDA’s Section 219 helps towns without a proper sewage system, where discharge flows into common drains. It helps townships and municipalities with aging waterlines that break frequently. It funds small cities lacking sufficient storm sewers to take floodwaters away from the streets. Small towns in western Pennsylvania, parts of West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and New York face real infrastructure challenges and lack the tax revenue to cover repair costs long-term – this is where WRDA can help.
“Every day, when I turn the shower on, I think that some of those people who can’t wash their dishes or take a shower because there’s no water in the well,” said Swansinger. “And by next year, we’ll have a water line extended to them, where they can have a constant supply of water to do normal daily things in life.”
At a larger scale, WRDA provides the Army Corps of Engineers with specific funding to address navigation, flood damage reduction and ecosystem restoration, approved by Congress.
Other sections of WRDA can assist with funding infrastructure projects.
Without this assistance, small towns would be forced to either raise higher taxes or increased water fees to pay for repairs, said one mayor whose town recently received funds under WRDA.
“We have an aged community … Some of these older people are on fixed incomes, and a rate increase is a big deal. It really hurts,” said David Velegol, mayor of Follansbee, West Virginia, a town of 5,000 people.
Follansbee is going through a multi-year project to replace two water plants and update distribution piping.
“Receiving these funds [through] the Army Corps has really been a blessing to our community,” said Velegol.
Within the Pittsburgh District, there are three different project sections funded under WRDA for water and sewer infrastructure aid: Section 219 funds Allegheny County and Northern West Virginia, Section 313 funds South-Central Pennsylvania, and Section 594 funds Eastern Ohio.
“There’s a very sizeable increase. It’s huge,” said Jesse Bisnette, the project manager for Section 313, which received a budget increase of $200 million for future projects. “Every time we've gone out and done these signings, their communities are so appreciative of it … That does bring joy to me seeing that we can help these communities.”
The three sections are similar in purpose, but each has its own allocated funds and rules for distribution. Section 219 has seen the biggest growth in project approval numbers in recent years thanks to greater community awareness, said Swansinger.
“We’ve made an effort to get the information out,” Swansinger said about the growing demand. “The funding was always there. It's just that people didn't know about it.”
When a community is approved for this assistance, WRDA funds can cover up to 75 percent of the project cost, either through cost-share, such as Section 219, or reimbursement, as in Sections 313 & 594.
Funds cover technical expertise, planning, design and construction. Pittsburgh District Engineers serve as facilitators between a community in need and the federal program. They assist with project requests, design, managing funds, awarding contracts, and overseeing construction from start to finish.
The district generally approves smaller projects, trying to keep each to $3 million or less to ensure as many communities as possible can receive assistance, said Swansinger.
A $3 million project can financially cripple an under-funded community without aid.
“If you’re a small community our size, you get sticker shock when you see that $2 or $3 million price tag,” said Shane Patrone, mayor of New Waterford, Ohio.
According to Patrone, his town of 1,400 residents received new waterlines across the entire village last year thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers’ assistance under Section 594 and other federal funds.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, wow! We’re never going to be able to afford this.’ That’s huge for small government entities like us … I don’t have an engineer on staff. I don’t even have a secretary,” Patrone said.
The waterlines in New Waterford were 60 to 70 years old before they were replaced, Patrone said. They burst just about every year, each time costing the town $48,000 in repairs.
“That was just a band-aid on the problem,” said Patrone.
Each time a break happened, residents experienced brown water issues and metal from the ground. During those incidents, the mayor’s best advice was to boil the water and not drink it for two or three days after the repairs completed, but he knew residents could not go on any longer like this.
“Nobody wants to drink water with a brown tint,” he said.
Of the total $2.5 million costs to replace the lines, the town paid less than $500,000 from local funds thanks to federal aid. The repairs should hold the town for another 50 years, Patrone said. He expects reliable waterlines will attract more residents and developers to his neighborhoods.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be able to help these communities because when you go out there and see some of these areas, they’re in desperate need of help. To be able to provide that assistance is why I enjoy this job,” said Swansinger.