Boston's Sewer Chief Emphasizes System Maintenance, Conservation

By , The Christian Science Monitor

THIS historic Northeastern city has come a long way over the past few years in keeping its 600,000 residents and 500,000 commuters supplied with a continuing flow of clean water, says Robert Ciolek, executive director of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.

Due to vigilant maintenance work on city pipes and water-conservation measures initiated by the business community, Boston has reduced its water purchases by 31 percent over the past 14 years, Mr. Ciolek says.

"Over a period of time when the population of Boston increased, over a period of economic boom in the 1980s, we were actually able to reduce our water purchases," he says.

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The city's infrastructure is, in fact, quite antiquated in certain parts: Some of the sewer pipes date back over a century.

But things have changed a great deal since the city's water and sewer agency was restructured in 1978, Ciolek says. "There was a belief that Boston basically was floating on a puddle of water due to the leaks in the system."

Ciolek, who first took on his post in 1989, also works as a board member of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA). The MWRA was created to manage the $6.1 billion cleanup of Boston's notoriously dirty harbor.

Ciolek especially enjoys his job because his work week is very unstructured: No two days are alike, he says. A native of Massachusetts, Ciolek says he's always been intrigued with the many water and waste water issues of the Boston area. He says he had a strong interest in becoming the city's water and sewer manager before he was hired.

"I lobbied very hard to come here and ultimately I was selected," he says.

Ciolek says his biggest challenge is to keep citizens informed of increasing costs.

The harbor cleanup, for example, will drive up costs dramatically over the next decade. In 1985, the average bill in Boston for sewage and water service was $135 per year. That cost has since climbed to approximately $575 per year, and by the turn of the century will jump to about $1,600.

Although the escalating costs are beyond his control, Ciolek nevertheless feels he wields considerable influence over the general maintenance of the city's complex water and sewer system. At the same time, however, he says state and federal water-quality regulations have made his work burdensome and costly.

"We could probably do a more-conservative and a more-rational approach for at least 50 percent less than what we are going to have to do," he says.

In terms of quality, Boston water is superior, despite the number of businesses and residents who buy the bottled version, Ciolek says. "By any objective standard, Boston has some of the best water in the country and by definition some of the best water in the world. This is the largest unfiltered water system east of Denver, Colo." One problem, however, is the system's aging pipes, which at times turn water yellow and have a high iron content, he says.

"In terms of the large systems in the Northeast, we are ... generally blessed with an abundance of clean water in the area and if we continue to do a reasonably decent job in maintaining it, it should last us for quite a while," Ciolek says.

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