Deep under the streets of Abington, terra-cotta pipes more than a half-century old carry the sewage.

Most of the time.

When it rains, water pours in through cracks, threatening to swamp the system.

In Falls Township, Bucks County, officials figure that the two-decades-old water meters are limping along, reading low. The cost to replace them: $2.5 million.

As for trouble spots in Delaware County, Joe Salvucci, executive director of the Regional Water Quality Control Authority (Delcora), deadpans, "Where would you like me to start?"

Throughout the region and the nation, the water and sewer infrastructure is aging. The question is how to fund repairs and upgrades to meet new, stringent standards.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvanians will vote in a referendum on $400 million in grants and loans.

The price tag statewide has been estimated at $36.5 billion over the next 20 years, according to a state report released yesterday. With operation, maintenance and debt service added, the cost balloons to $113.6 billion.

"This is about making sure our streams and rivers are not polluted with raw sewage, about making sure the tap water we rely on is safe," said John Hanger, acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"Unfortunately, right now we have too much raw sewage going into rivers," he said. "In some cases, and I'm only slightly exaggerating, the pipes leak more water than they carry."

Hanger said the $400 million would also provide 12,000 construction, engineering and other jobs.

DEP officials were reluctant to single out any of Southeastern Pennsylvania's 127 community sewage treatment facilities and 208 community drinking water systems.

"It's not one or two systems; it's across the board," said Jenifer Fields, water program director at the DEP southeastern office. "We're at this point where so much is failing."

Consider a pipe Salvucci refers to as the "Chester force main," an aged 42-inch line just under three miles long.

Replacing it would cost $30 million. If they don't hit rock.

The cost of such projects long was borne by the federal government. But now it is more the states' responsibility.

In New Jersey - where officials say $21 billion is needed for waste- and drinking-water upgrades - the state Environmental Infrastructure Trust on Thursday announced the sale of $128 million in bonds to help finance 67 projects worth more than $300 million.

In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, smaller boroughs may be hit hardest, said Edward Troxell, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs.

Many have some of the oldest infrastructure, compounded by limited funds due to a declining tax base.

On top of that, many water plants must deal with new contaminants, such as trace amounts of pharmaceuticals.

"It's like keeping an old car running," said John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association. "You're replacing so many pieces and parts, and all of a sudden you need a catalytic converter."

Often the problem isn't so much that water leaks out of the system but that it seeps in.

With every significant rainfall, water pours into pipes through cracks and seams.

Delcora officials know how much water its customers buy. And it's only 40 percent of the flow coming into the treatment plants.

In most suburban communities, stormwater systems are separate. But in Philadelphia, where some pipes date back 120 years, the system handles both sewage and stormwater.

Sewers have backed up into basements, leaving a slick of raw sewage and toilet paper.

In downpours, pipes fill quickly, and water may gush from 180 overflow points into the Schuylkill and Delaware River.

Other cities are spending billions to build tunnels and tanks to hold stormwater until it can be treated.

But here, it would take something the size of Citizens Bank Park, said Howard Neukrug, director of the city Water Department's office of watersheds. So officials plan to incorporate green technologies, such as porous pavement and rain gardens.

"In the end, it's still going to cost a lot of money," he said. "Billions of dollars."

What opposition there is to the ballot question is not about the need, but the funding.

In July, the legislature passed an $800 million infrastructure measure, to be paid with gaming revenues.

The state couldn't get more, said Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery). So Tuesday's question adds $400 million.

But Matthew Brouillette, of the conservative nonprofit Commonwealth Foundation, said it was merely a way to get around the state's debt cap:

"To put it in layman's terms, they have come close to maxing out their credit-card limit, and they have put this on a different credit card."

Others, while supporting the ballot question, have concerns that it could foster sprawl if money is used to expand sewer lines to undeveloped areas.

"We'll be watching to make sure that doesn't happen," said Bob Wendelgass of the nonprofit Clean Water Action.

One of the region's poster streams could well be the Wissahickon Creek. Its headwaters are in the parking lot of Montgomery Mall, and water quality goes downhill from there.

Five aging sewage-treatment plants drain into it. During dry summer months, officials estimate that the stream flow, which eventually swirls by a Philadelphia drinking water intake, is 95 percent treated effluent.

Although there are exceptions - two years ago, a hard rain and power outage at the Ambler plant sent 55,000 gallons of raw sewage into the creek - the plants operate in compliance with their permits, Wendelgass said.

"The problem is the collective discharge has caused the stream to be degraded," he said.

He said meeting new standards would be "painful."

Abington, for instance, is already spending $11 million - paid for with a 15-year bond - for an upgrade to a plant built in 1947.

Ambler Mayor Mary Aversa said that with new regulations, the borough could have to replace its entire facility at a cost of $60 million, under the worst-case scenario.

For the last five years, Ambler has spent upward of $200,000 a year for the most urgent repairs to piping that serves about 6,000 customers. "That's just the tip of it," Aversa said.

As for the water system, new development may force Ambler to build larger mains to avoid a scenario like the Aug. 13 apartment building fire in Conshohocken.

When water pressure in hydrants dropped, firefighters had to draw water from the Schuylkill.

"The more we put off these upgrades, the more expensive it's going to become," said Patty Elkis of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

New Jersey Projects

Some of the 67 New Jersey projects for which funding was announced Thursday:

WASTEWATER PROJECTS:

Bellmawr Borough: $9,082,000 New storm sewer.

Burlington City: $9,093,000 Pump station, force main.

Camden City: $3,871,000 Sewer relocation, replacement.

Camden County: $24,588,000 Sludge-drying facility.

Cinnaminson Twp.: $790,000 Force main replacements.

Evesham Township: $3,007,000 Treatment-plant upgrade.

Gloucester County: $1,497,000 Treatment upgrades.

Gloucester Township: $3,002,000 Sewer rehabilitation.

Haddon Township: $7,343,000 Sewer rehabilitation.

Medford Township: $8,109,000 Plant improvements.

Runnemede Borough: $1,971,000 Pump-station upgrade.

Willingboro Township: $5,819,000 Emergency repair.

DRINKING WATER PROJECTS:

Aqua NJ (Blackwood) Inc.: $1,196,000 Radium removal.

Gloucester City: $10,295,000 Plant upgrades.

Mantua Township: $4,600,000 Water-main construction.

Stafford Township: $7,557,000 New water mains.

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Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.