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HOLMBERG: Deep down problems in the River City

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--If you wonder why there are so many water main breaks (another big one Wednesday on E. Main Street) and backed-up sewers in the River City, all you have to do is look at some of the cobblestone streets, among some of the oldest in the nation.

Some of those stones came here 200 to 300 years ago, as ballast for sailing ships from Europe coming to load up on goodies from the brave new world.

The city’s water and sewer systems underneath these roads are also among some of the oldest in the country.

Some sewers are still lined with bricks and even older ones, deep under the city, are lined with the granite that was mined out of the river, granite that can be seen in our curb stones and in the walls of old City Hall.

Our video report shows broken sewer pipes and blocked- or partially blocked - storm drains.

Many water lines are also generations old. When they fail, the destructive force of water – hydraulics - is all too apparent. If you watch this video report, you can see Main Street heave up and split in a matter of minutes Wednesday.

“One of the things we do almost every day is repair water leaks,” said Angela Fountain, public information officer for the city’s Department of Public Utilities. “It’s not uncommon. Richmond . . . is a historic city.”

Like many older cities, Richmond has a combined sewer and storm drain system  in most of the eastern part of the city – meaning the rainwater and the stuff you flush go through the same pipes. When it rains a lot, the sewage treatment plant is overwhelmed and millions of untreated stuff goes right into the James River, dozens of times a year.

The city is slowly working on these problems. It’s a big task because some of the problems are deep, and more than a century old.

And these are deep-problems shared by many other older cities, including New York City, which dumps far more raw sewage into its waterways. Richmond is in the midst of a vast expansion of its sewage treatment plant and has been steadily relining or replacing its underground piping.

But you can bet you’ll be seeing broken water mains and overflowing storm sewers for years to come.