This month’s cold front left a wake of destruction on water infrastructure across the country. Freezing temperatures caused water main breaks that disrupted hundreds of service connections, forcing utility crews to close streets and make repairs in numbing conditions. The sheer number of incidents reported this January is an unsettling indication of the state of US water infrastructure. Many are beginning to ask how much longer we can afford to put water infrastructure improvements on the back burner.
Indianapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, and Washington, DC are just a few places that had utility crews scrambling this January. Some of the reports we received this month included:
- Atlanta, GA – WXIA11 reports on January 9th that multiple water main breaks turn streets into sheets of ice – forcing traffic closures.
- Indianapolis, IN – Fox59 reports on January 9th that eight water main breaks occurred over the course of just a few days.
- Louisville, KY – WLKY32 reports on January 9th that an 8” water main break forces the closure of a major intersection.
- Washington, DC – ABC7 reports on January 14th that a 6” water main burst disrupted water service to 40 homes.
This havoc caused by winter weather is not necessarily new, but it does seem as if it is becoming more the norm. This January, water main breaks were reported as far south as Waco, Texas where temperatures in the mid-20s resulted in 21 water main breaks. Last year, Waco Water Utility Services reported over 70 water main breaks in January alone.[ii] Across the country, the District of Columbia “…averages between 400 and 500 water main breaks per year and most occur in the winter months”, exclaims the DC Water website. DC Water goes further to say, “During the busiest weeks, which are usually during sudden cold spells, DC Water may be juggling 20 or more different water main breaks at one time.” [iii]
All of these water main breaks are typically the result of one acute factor: extreme temperature changes causing pipe materials to expand and contract, wearing on pipe joints and causing leaks. The result: water geysers and giant ice patches, road closures, service disruption to customers, repair crews working on “band-aid” fixes, and ultimately revenue losses that trickle down to tax payers and water customers.
While winter weather may be the official cause of death for many of these breaks, a more chronic – underlying factor – is the real crux of the problem: age. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), most U.S. water and wastewater related infrastructure is nearing or has already exceeded its useful lifespan. The ASCE accounts for nearly 240,000 water main breaks each year in this country with an estimated repair cost reaching $1 trillion over the next few decades.[iv] The problem is so bad that ASCE rates the overall condition of U.S. drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a “D” or “Poor”.
Like many water-related challenges, a prime example of this problem lies in San Francisco – a city that does not typically see harsh winter weather. A recent segment by ABC7 in San Francisco highlights some of the challenges the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) is experiencing. Each year, EBMUD repairs 850 water main breaks over a 4,200 mile distribution system.[v] Currently, much of the district’s water pipes were installed prior to 1950 – making them 70 years old. In order to meet federal guidelines, the district anticipates total improvements to the Bay Area’s Hetch Hetchy Water System at nearly $4.6 billion.[vi] Expand this type of cost across all the large utility systems in America and you will start to realize the enormity of our infrastructure problem.
So where does this leave us? One word: vulnerable. While it may be an inconvenience for a household to lose water for a 24-hour period, water loss is a major operational disruption to bulk water consumers such as hospitals, district energy plants, and manufacturing facilities. For urban hospitals with no backup water supply, major risks are posed to basic sanitation, the ability to operate critical equipment such as x-ray machines, and the ability to provide comfort heating and cooling to buildings with hundreds of ill patients. For manufacturing plants without backup water supply, production can be severely curtailed by an inability to operate process equipment. Under the same circumstances, district energy plants may not be able to offer critical heating and cooling operations – causing facilities to shut down.
How did we get to this point? The answer centers on the fact that water projects have traditionally been underfunded by both state and federal governments. And, in an atmosphere of tight local capital improvement budgets, water projects are first to be “value-engineered” into the next generation’s problem. As a part of their report, ABC7 in San Francisco highlights that water projects “received just $5 billion of the $800 billion available as part of the federal stimulus package”. [vii]
For the last decade, the question has been: “Do we pay now or pay even more later?” Seeing that utility systems in California already lose as much as 200 million gallons of water annually, most agree that “paying later” is something we can ill-afford to do.[viii] If, however, we continue to “kick-the-can” on critical water infrastructure spending, bulk water consumers will be forced to identify new, alternative water sources to minimize operational risks associated with municipal service disruptions. In light of today’s infrastructure challenges, on-site water reclamation may be the most viable way to combat municipal water supply risks, as well as manage drought and ever-increasing water costs.
[ii] “Waco fixing 21 broken water pipes following cold front.” WacoTribe.com. January 12, 2015.