U.S. water infrastructure in desperate need of repair

Published 24 January 2011

U.S water infrastructure is rapidly aging and causing disease outbreaks, water loss, and property damage; these problems primarily owe to ancient water pipes, many of which have not been repaired or upgraded since they were first installed in the years following the Second World War; some are over eighty years old; on average 700 water mains break a day flooding homes and causing thousands of dollars in property damage; a 2008 salmonella outbreak in Colorado that sickened 250 people was linked to poor water infrastructure; an estimated seven billion gallons of water is lost due to leaky pipes

Critical infrastructure that provides millions of homes with water in the United States is rapidly aging and causing disease outbreaks, water loss, and property damage.

According to CNN, on average 700 water mains break a day flooding homes and causing thousands of dollars in property damage.

In its 2009 Report Card of America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) graded U.S. water infrastructure at a “D minus.”

The report estimated that seven billion gallons of water is lost due to leaking pipes.

Furthermore, poor infrastructure is believed to the cause of large disease outbreaks.

According to Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council, contaminated drinking water as a result of poor water infrastructure caused a 2008 salmonella outbreak that affected more than 250 people in Colorado.

Anytime you’re breaking the seal of the system that brings water into your homes and apartments, you’re risking contamination from bacteria and viruses,” Goldstein said.

Problems with water pipes primarily owe to age. Much of the U.S. water delivery system was first installed in the years immediately following the Second World War with little upgrades since.

Thirty percent of the larger water pipes, those that transport water to more than 100,00 people, are anywhere from forty to eighty years old, and roughly 10 percent of these pipes are even older.

The main impediment to making critical maintenance or upgrades is cost. Each year the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimates for the cost to repair the U.S. water infrastructure system rises. In 1999 the EPA estimated that the total cost was roughly $198 billion – the latest estimate was $335 billion.

The primary cost driver has been the increasing complexity to repair these pipes.

George Hawkins, the District of Columbia a water general manager, said that, “So much has been added to the underworld, that each one of these fixes is getting more and more complicated to get done properly.”

When digging to find water pipes, “there’s now Verizon lines that didn’t used to be there, cable lines, fiber lines, electrical lines,” Hawkins said.

As the U.S. water infrastructure has continued to age and costs have gone up, federal funding for maintenance has plummeted.

Up until the 1970’s, the federal government paid for the construction of sewage plants and drinking water systems, but over the last several decades that funding has been steadily cut.

The economic stimulus package that was passed in 2009 contained $10 billion out of a total of $787 billion for water infrastructure projects. Goldstein calls the amount, a “drop in the bucket.”

Some critics argue that the money for infrastructure repair should come from user fees rather than the federal government.

According to Randal O’Toole, a senior analyst at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., “All the costs of construction and maintenance might be borne by users out of annual or monthly fees.”

O’Toole suggests privatizing community water facilities, citing the fact that “in the 19th century, almost every major American city had private water companies” and as a result lower costs and higher quality of water.

Regardless of where the funding comes from, experts agree on the critical role that U.S. water infrastructure plays on our economy and daily lives.

Underscoring that fact, Goldstein says, “You can’t have jobs, you can’t have businesses, you can’t have hotels, homes, if this infrastructure isn’t in place.”