The water infrastructure of the United States needs upgrading. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; much of the water infrastructure of the nation was installed when the country’s cities were built and the tendency since has been to defer maintenance. Many urban water infrastructures are more than a hundred years old, and they are increasingly strained with population growth and suburban sprawl. Moreover, the infrastructure comprises a great many components: wells, surface water intakes, dams, reservoirs, storage tanks, aqueducts, treatment plants, pipes and, of course, valves.
A dramatic example of the aging water infrastructure system is the January 1998 New York City breakdown of a 48-inch, 128-year-old water main under Fifth Avenue. When the pipe burst, several streets were flooded and a 35-foot-crater formed. Worse, the failure ruptured gas lines that shot flames 20 feet into the air.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate places 25% of the nation’s water pipes in either a “poor, very poor or elapsed” category, and the agency expects this figure to rise to 45% by 2020 unless new plans are devised and acted upon. EPA’s last grade for the nation’s water infrastructure was a “D,” a lower grade than the “C minus” it awarded the aging bridges infrastructure. The EPA has estimated that to properly upgrade the nation’s water infrastructure—not counting anti-terrorism measures—will end up taking $750 billion to $1 trillion over the first 20 years of this century.
Despite grim pronouncements by EPA, the public is generally unaware of the problem, and the political will for spending the needed money is soft at best. Tom Decker, a vice president at CH2M Hill, pegs public awareness of the aging infrastructure problem at a “2” or “3” on a scale of 10. “The infrastructure is largely underground; there is no real appreciation for it,” he says.
Terry Christjohn, vice president for sales at Kennedy Valve, would give political will a “4” on a scale of 10; he points out that local money is tight and competing demands—police, schools, roads—all draw attention and resources away from water infrastructure needs. He points out that in the 1970s, federal clean water acts focused attention on the problem and steered federal money to projects, but that now more than 90% of funding for water infrastructure upgrades is generated locally—through water bills, bonds and like means.
John Pensec, director of communications and public affairs for Mueller Water Products, points to Atlanta, where water rates are rising significantly and a 1% sales tax has been imposed even as the multi-state region around the city is still attempting to develop a working water strategy.
Decker believes that “what we need is a single, comprehensive national strategy to prioritize investment, not necessarily run one that is totally run by the federal government. Right now we don’t have one. Overhauling the water infrastructure is ad hoc and reactive. We should start with an awareness campaign geared to common citizens, not too technical and without jargon but at their level.” One would hope that with understanding, action would follow before tragedies strike.