For AWA, reckoning on horizon

Sunday’s Mirror article “AWA behind on piping work” provided numerous troubling statistics related to the Altoona area water and sewer systems — thus the Altoona Water Authority — and alluded to the higher bills that customers might face in the years ahead.

But that picture of concern is not unique to the local system.

Other systems in Pennsylvania and in other states are fraught with similar uncomfortable realities that pose significantly higher customer financial obligations, later if not sooner.

In those systems near and far, upgrades to lines and mains installed 50, 75, 90 years ago — even, in some cases, more than a century ago — haven’t kept pace with logical maintenance and replacement schedules.

As long as water flows when a faucet is turned on, and as long as raw sewage isn’t running over streets or through yards, the system is presumed to be performing adequately.

But in his report on Sunday, Mirror reporter William Kibler included two paragraphs containing important recommendations that should guide the local water authority going forward.

The recommendations were part of a presentation to the authority by Mark Glenn, president of Gwin Dobson & Foreman Inc., the authority’s consulting engineer.

One of the recommendations is that “the authority needs a water system plan that emphasizes minimizing leaks, correcting low pressure, boosting capacity and reducing the breaks that lead to dirty water and system shutdowns.”

Regarding the sanitary sewer system, the consulting engineer’s report stressed the need for “a sewer plan that emphasizes eliminating backups and increasing capacity.”

The water and sewer systems’ current condition is reminiscent of the thinking in Harrisburg regarding the state budget.

In Harrisburg, lawmakers portend to advocate a balanced budget with no nagging deficits but are reluctant to make the difficult decisions to achieve those goals.

In the case of the water authority, the authority has been spending much less than the national average for upkeep of both its water-distribution and sewage-collection systems, while exercising reluctance toward rate increases that would make additional improvements possible.

Reluctance to rate increases is commendable but not always correct.

Authority members and the authority’s management have been able to accomplish much over the years, but days of reckoning could lie ahead for Altoona’s systems, nonetheless, just like for other systems across the country.

Meanwhile, it must be acknowledged that part of the authority’s money limitations stem from customers’ laudable efforts to reduce consumption.

Reduced consumption lowers customers’ water and sewer bills, but it also means less money for the authority’s coffers.

Then there’s the issue of the “lost” water — mentioned in the Gwin Dobson & Foreman analysis — water that escapes from the system by way of unidentified leaks. The engineering firm has estimated the unaccounted-for water at 30 percent, which many customers might regard as unthinkable.

It’s troubling how so much water cannot be accounted for in the local system and why there hasn’t been more work in locating the problems, some of which might be tied to malfunctioning meters as well.

As Sunday’s article revealed, the authority is behind in its piping work.

Fortunately, there’s not yet a crisis.

The authority must resist “rolling the dice” regarding the future.