The water main burst early on a Monday morning, cutting off water service to a high school and forcing administrators to cancel class. Once his team dug it up, Henry Rosado could tell the age of the cast-iron pipe with one look.
"It's from the '40s," said Rosado, whose job leading a water crew in this city of broken pipes makes him a kind of urban archaeologist. Recently Rosado's crew replaced a pipe stamped with the year 1890.
"Some of the old pipes hold up well," he said. "The pipes from the '30s are still pretty good. But in the '40s they were using junk metal and sending the good stuff to make tanks."
With some of the oldest infrastructure in the nation, the pipes under New York's cities and towns are failing at an alarming rate; Syracuse had nearly 400 water main breaks last year alone. The problems will only get worse and the cost of fixing them is already huge. The EPA estimates New York state faces $22 billion in costs in the next 20 years, while a state projection puts the amount at $39 billion.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation's existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure, as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth, could cost as much as $1 trillion. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.
Old cast-iron pipes can last a century in the right conditions. But soil conditions and the freeze-and-thaw cycles of a New York winter can break down metal much faster. Many pipes under New York's cities and towns are a century old or older and approaching their breaking points.
"We trade in our cellphones after one year. We trade in TVs because we want a bigger screen. But we're content to live with more-than-100-year-old pipes," said New York Congressman Paul Tonko, who is pushing for greater federal investment in water infrastructure. "Believing they will be there forever is unreasonable."
The cracks are already obvious. New York City saw 513 water main breaks last year; estimates are that as much as 20 percent of the treated water that enters the city's pipes leak out before it even makes it to the faucet. In western New York, the Erie County Water Authority had 1,453 water main breaks last year thanks to an unusually cold winter that froze the ground deeper than usual.
"Once you shift the ground and put it against an older pipe that's become brittle, then it's snap! You've got a break," said Robert Lichtenthal, deputy director at the Erie County Water Authority.
Cold winters and the region's old pipes are two main reasons for the state's water woes, experts say. A third is politics and government: big federal investments made in water projects during the Depression, the post-war years and again in the seventies fell beginning in the '80s as other government costs — pensions, health care, education, social services and debt — went up. Raising taxes became increasingly unpalatable.
"We need somebody — I don't know if it's going to be the state, it may have to be the federal government — to step up," said Joe Landry, supervisor of the town of Niskayuna outside Schenectady.
Earlier this month, a water main break in Niskayuna led the county health department to impose a boil-water order. Across the Hudson in Rensselaer, a break last spring prompted a boil advisory and shut down City Hall.
The state has stepped in with zero- and low-interest loans and grants to help. The state's Environmental Facilities Corp. has approved more than $400 million for drinking water projects in the past year. Lawmakers approved $200 million in additional water funding earlier this year.
But the money is merely a down payment on the billions needed to address the problem. After Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said last year that her city would need $725 million to replace its water mains, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the local newspaper's editorial board that the city would have to take the lead.
"Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs," he told The Post-Standard. "Then you fix your own pipes."
On Thursday, Miner repeated her call for help.
"We need the state of New York to step up and support our communities," she said. "Syracusans are New Yorkers, too, and our state must help us."
For now, fixing pipes will largely be a patch job, with cities scrambling to fix an increasing number of breaks and dreading the return of winter, when most breaks occur.
In Syracuse, Rosado's crew first shuts off the water heading into the ruptured pipe and digs down several feet with a backhoe. The four-foot section of cast iron is removed and a replacement pipe is cut down to size. Two burly men hand-tighten a pipe joint to seal the new section into place.
After inspecting the failed section of pipe Rosado predicts problems along the rest of the main in the years to come.
"This is just temporary," he said of the fix. "This whole main is going to be to be replaced. Someday."