Big repairs looming for Rhinebeck’s aging water system

“Death by a thousand paper cuts.” That’s how Trustee Heinz Sauer describes the water lost by the Village of Rhinebeck’s distribution system, parts of which date to the 1890s.

Minor leaks in corroded and cracking pipes cost the village up to 15 percent of its water supply, according to Sauer. As a percent of the total water budget, that works out to about $158,000 each year.

And then there are the major line breaks. In 2011, flooding from Hurricane Irene exposed two old water mains that had been poorly laid, requiring $180,000 in repairs.

When Sauer took over as water department liaison in 2012, much of the distribution system was undocumented. The village had no maps or guides to the location of older mains, or where the most damaged pipes might be found.

Sauer began a careful documentation process, culminating in a neatly organized three-ring binder that serves as proof of the system’s fragile infrastructure.

Sauer said that while minor repairs are ongoing, a major overhaul will be necessary soon, at a cost he estimates at about $2 million. By comparison, Red Hook’s distribution system is about 40 years newer than Rhinebeck’s but is already going through a major overhaul, which started last year.

While a critical resource for Rhinebeck, the water department keeps a tight budget, with all revenue coming from metered water sales and hydrant rentals. The entire system is run by just four men, headed by chief operator Thomas Wallbank. Covering 13 shifts a week, they are responsible for everything from daily water plant operations and meter reading to emergency repairs.

Despite being stretched thin, the team keeps the water treatment plant in meticulous condition. Completed in 1968, the plant processes an average of 10 million gallons per month.

But Sauer warns that potentially big expenses loom there, as well. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, floodwater came within a few feet of the low lift station, which pumps water from the Hudson. Citing data that show an increased potential for flooding in the future, Sauer has begun to research options for relocating the pumps, which are 12 feet below ground.

The water department has a capital replacement plan, but Sauer said the distribution system overhaul will require outside funding. Some assistance for such projects is available, though competition is “fierce,” he noted.

Looking to the future, Sauer warned, “It is cheaper to do repairs and replacements sooner, and before a catastrophic event.”

The water department has requested a conceptual plan from the village engineer for phasing and potential costs of a distribution system overall. Sauer expects the plan to be completed by next month.

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