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When we flush our toilets, we assume that whatever’s in there will disappear forever – like magic, as it were.

But that magic depends on a labyrinthine system of underground pipes, a lot of them dating back to the 1930s or even further. When those pipes fail from age, lack of maintenance, or the intrusion of tree roots, the magic abruptly stops, and the results aren’t pretty.

Those buried water, sewer and storm drain pipes were the subject of our latest editorial board meeting with Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies and City Manager Mark Prestwich. It wasn’t a sexy or particularly pleasant topic. But, as St. Helenans will discover over the next year, it’s a crucial and expensive one that we can’t afford to neglect any longer.

The city is studying which pipes are where, what condition they’re in, and how to repair them over time as part of an Integrated Utility Master Plan.

Aiding that process, consultants are scanning hundreds of boxes worth of old records and building plans. The documents will then be posted online through a searchable database, saving many hours for city staff, builders, real estate agents and local history buffs.

Once the city prioritizes its repairs, Measure T and SB 1 will provide a good chunk of the funding, since pipe repairs go hand in hand with road repairs. Figuring out which pipes need to be repaired or replaced will enable to the city to do that work in conjunction with fixing the roads, instead of fixing the roads now and then cutting them up later to fix the pipes.

The pipes alone will be a major expense, probably in the tens of millions of dollars. During Prestwich’s tenure in Nevada City, a city about half the size of St. Helena, his staff discovered $20 million worth of necessary infrastructure improvements.

Nevada City couldn’t afford to repair everything at once, and St. Helena won’t be able to either. But this fact-finding process will help the city set priorities, develop a long-term plan to address them, and strategically seek grant funding.

Make no mistake – we’re looking at decades of significant expense. However, St. Helena is well-positioned financially, thanks to Measure T, SB 1, the Measure D sales tax, and revenue from the Las Alcobas hotel and maybe a new hotel next to Farmstead.

Smithies came across as smart, professional and well-suited for this challenging task, which will require expertise in strategic planning, engineering and grant writing. Just months ago she secured a $556,100 federal grant to replace some guardrails along Silverado Trail near Pope Street, freeing up city funds for road and infrastructure repairs.

Recognizing that Smithies will need to devote much of her time and expertise to capital improvements, Prestwich plans to reorganize the Public Works Department and delegate day-to-day operations to an assistant. That seems like a sensible idea given the tasks she faces on the capital side – don’t forget she’s also in charge of upgrading the wastewater treatment plant and removing the Upper York Creek Dam.

City councilmembers will have to authorize some major expenses. Residents will need to stand behind them and appreciate that St. Helena is a full-service city, with the requirements and responsibilities of a big city and the revenues and staffing levels of a small town.

The current staff is making up for lost time. Not only was staffing thin during the recession, but the city lacked adequate revenues and a culture of preventive maintenance.

The result was a failed corrugated metal storm drain along Oak Avenue north of Spring Street in September 2017, followed by a failed clay storm drain on Oak south of Spring last November.

Those days of scurrying from busted pipe to busted pipe are ending. The city is finally taking a more strategic, fact-based approach to maintaining and investing in its infrastructure.

It won’t be fun or cheap, but it’s the only way to keep the magic happening.

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The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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