Like the arteries of many centenarians, the 100-year-old water mains in downtown Attleboro are ailing.
Clogged with generations of rust, the cast-iron pipes have constricted, slowly squeezing off the flow of water - the lifeblood of any city. Surgery to repair the infirmities of old age will cost millions of dollars.
In Mansfield, residents have turned up their noses at the murky liquid that sometimes comes from their taps. It's water, all right, but it's so dirty it can stain laundry and render coffee undrinkable.
At one point, the water department ran out of the stain remover Red-B-Gone it was handing out because residents had used so much of it.
It's the same in other area towns: In Foxboro this election year, some water mains date to the administration of President Grover Cleveland; in Norton, some water lines are only 4 inches in diameter.
The problem is hardly unique to the Attleboro area.
Much has been made of Massachusetts' crumbling roads and bridges, but the same could be said of the worn-out infrastructure buried beneath the pavement.
And like those pushing for a fix for the state's transportation troubles, clean water activists say repairing and maintaining the state's water pipes, storage tanks and treatment plants comes with a big repair bill - about $8 billion over the next 20 years.
While the threat of a systemwide meltdown is unlikely, they say the financial pressures on cities and towns is making it harder for them to keep up with regular maintenance - making the prospect of broken or damaged pipes more likely.
In 2006, water departments across the state reported almost 2,000 leaks that lost more than 250 million gallons of water.
"In older cities with older pipes, you are going to have pipes that are breaking more often, that are clogging more often," said John McNabb, manager of the Drinking Water Program with the advocacy group Clean Water Action. "It's a direct public health issue. It's an affordability issue. It's a public safety issue."
The group recently released a report detailing the extent of the problem, and calling for lawmakers to pass a bill this year creating a special commission to look at the issue and recommend ways to come up with the needed money.
In Attleboro, city officials are in the process of spending about $6 million on water pipes.
Last summer, the city embarked on a three-year, $5.9 million project to clean and line 100-year-old drinking water mains and install new mains to South Attleboro, and between the water treatment plant and Luther Reservoir.
Line cleaning was done last summer. The other two projects will be done over the next two years.
The new main to South Attleboro will increase water pressure needed for firefighting, and the line to Luther Reservoir will capture excess water usually lost to the Seven Mile River, and will increase the city's water supply.
A 2.5-mile stretch of the century-old cast-iron pipes on South Main Street was scrubbed out and lined with cement. The interior of the pipe had become encrusted with rust and magnesium over the years, compromising water flow and water quality.
Mansfield's water supply made headlines last fall when school committee Chairwoman Jean Miller complained to the board of selectmen that brown water was flowing regularly into homes in West Mansfield.
"I can't stress enough that this is terrible, to live like this, and anyone who lives in West Mansfield knows what I'm talking about," Miller said.
Town Manager John D'Agostino said the problem was because of water main breaks and ongoing construction projects.
"There's a problem with the infrastructure, absolutely," he said.
The town's public works director, Lee Azinheira, said Mansfield will need to construct a new water treatment plant, and in May town meeting voters will be asked to fund a new water main.
Selectmen also have approved a $75 rebate for homeowners who install a water filter.
In Foxboro, some water pipes date to 1892, Water and Sewer Superintendent Leo Potter says.
"We have done a lot of replacement, but we have a fair amount of old cast iron that needs to be replaced," he said.
Foxboro also has 22 miles of cement asbestos pipe that needs replacing, Potter said.
"In the '50s, that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then, they discovered it has its problems," he said.
In Norton, much of the old piping and infrastructure is in "bad shape," Water and Sewer Superintendent Duane Knapp said.
An eight-mile, $5 million water main replacement and installation project will go out to bid in the middle to late spring, Knapp said.
The work will take two years. Among the targeted areas are Pine Street, from Route 123 to Plain Street; South Washington Street, from Route 123 south to Crane Street; and Crane to Pine.
Most of the pipes involved are undersized for Norton's water pressure needs, Knapp said.
"A lot of it is 6-inch pipe, 4-inch pipe. You can't get enough water through it," he said.
Wrentham's water system was in such poor condition in the mid-1990s that the state warned the town it had to make substantial improvements.
After spending millions, the town's water infrastructure is in much better shape today, with two new wells, a new water tank and several miles of newer water lines.
Norfolk has been trying to get another well for several years, but has been stymied more by the state and neighboring Franklin than money constraints.
The town has a new water storage tank.
But other Massachusetts cities and towns are still struggling with water woes, even as Beacon Hill is still reeling from a bombshell report released last year by a special commission studying the extent of the state's transportation troubles.
That report concluded the state will need to bring in an extra $15 to $19 billion over the next 20 years just to maintain its current system of roads, bridges, subways and commuter rails.
That's not counting any money for new projects, such as a proposed commuter rail link from Boston to New Bedford and Fall River that could find its way through Attleboro, Norton, Mansfield and Taunton.
Clean water advocates are also hoping to grab the attention of top state officials, although they acknowledge that unlike concrete-shedding bridges and pothole-strewn roads, water and sewer pipes are largely out of sight and mind - until one breaks.
State Rep. Frank Smizik, D-Brookline, said the water report and the call for a special commission was an attempt, in part, to make sure the issue of clean drinking water isn't washed away by the push to solve the state's transportation troubles.
"We are trying to get in the ballgame," he said. "We've suffered from years of neglect and we have to make that up - and now's the time."
That's much the same pitch made by those pushing the state to come to grips with its post-Big Dig transportation landscape - one also marked, they say, by years of neglect.
Michael Widmer, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, sat on the commission that outlined the extent of the transportation problem, but he also supports addressing the water issues.
"These things don't come cheap, and you can ignore them only so long. In the end, the citizens have to pay in some fashion," he said. "It's only a question of when and how much."
Communities, no surprise, are looking to the state for help, and to some extent, are getting it.
At a recent meeting of the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust, state Treasurer Tim Cahill, who chairs the trust, highlighted 99 water projects recently selected for funding.
The projects will improve drinking-water quality and reduce water pollution through the construction and upgrading of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, including pipes, storage and treatment facilities.
Among those are $3.6 million for improvements to the Attleboro water system.
Staff writers Ted Nesi, George Rhodes and Michael Gelbwasser contributed to this report, and Associated Press material was used as well.