America's water infrastructure crisis is going to get a lot worse—and a lot more expensive—before it gets better

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a $4.1 billion initiative to replace his city's dilapidated water infrastructure last month, spinning it as a plan to create 18,000 jobs over the next decade. The rub is that by 2015, most Chicagoans would pay more than double their current water usage fees. “The work here, in my view, is essential for Chicago’s economic future,” Emanuel said at a construction site where crews replaced piping dating to 1886.

Unsurprisingly, most Chicagoans are unhappy with the rate hike. But their city has at least a thousand miles of water line that's 100 years old or older, so the upgrade is a must. And Chicago's not alone. Built mostly during the late 19th and early 20th century*, much of the country's water infrastructure—from wells to dams and reservoirs; from storage tanks, aqueducts, and treatment plants to pipes and valves—is rapidly failing.

The problem is most troubling in cities, where dense and increasing populations put greater demand on already-strained systems that municipal governments generally lack the funds to upgrade. Without robust, urgent action, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly half the nation's pipes will fall into the “poor, very poor or elapsed” categories by 2020, risking widespread failures and a considerable threat to public health.

Failing water infrastructure has been making headlines for over a decade, to little effect. In 1998, a 128-year-old water main burst under Fifth Avenue in New York, flooding several streets, creating a 35-foot-crater and rupturing a gas line that shot flames 20 feet into the air. In 2001, the American Water Works Association published a report [PDF] about the "Replacement Era" that warned that our nation's pipes were reaching their expiration date.

A 2007 water main break in downtown New York (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave water infrastructure across the country a D-minus. Four years later it handed out the same grade. In 2007, an increase in giant sinkholes in cities and towns all over the country coincided with the EPA's launch of its Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program.

Now it's nearly 2012, yet water systems in Washington, Alaska and North Dakota still use wooden pipes. This past summer, pipelines burst across the country due to record heat. Oklahoma City's utilities department recorded 685 main breaks from July to early September.

The ASCE says leaks cost us seven billion gallons of water each day—nearly 2 trillion of gallons of water, worth nearly $3 billion, every year. The EPA estimates 700 water mains break every day, or nearly one every two minutes. And a study by UCLA and Stanford found that more than 1.5 million people in Southern California get sick every year because of bacteria from polluted water released by broken pipes.

Jeffrey K. Griffiths, professor of public health at Tufts University and chair of the drinking water committee on the EPA's Science Advisory Board, says that aging pipes should be replaced at a rate of 2 percent each year. But the current rate across the U.S. is less than half that. “We're going to have increasing numbers of breaking pipes; the infrastructure is not going to last much longer,” says Griffiths. “The longer we delay replacing the pipes, the cost will be higher. Plus there's the public health problem that contaminants in the ground get in the water and people get sick.”

The EPA estimates that adequately upgrading the nation’s water infrastructure would cost between $750 billion and $1 trillion over the next couple decades. Yet with the protracted recession, neither cities nor the federal government have funds to spare. And because water infrastructure is mainly underground and out of sight, political will in Washington remains low. Only about $10 billion of the $787 billion 2009 stimulus package was aimed at water infrastructure. What's more, the federal government's share of water infrastructure spending has plummeted from about 75 percent to about 3 percent in the past 35 years, according to Ken Kirk of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

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The result is that state and municipal governments are often forced to shoulder an impossible expense. A $3 billion sewer system debt forced Jefferson County, Alabama, to declare bankruptcy earlier this month—the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy filing.

Mayors and city officials are turning to taxpayers to foot the inflated water infrastructure bill. In many places—including Los Angeles, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Sacramento and now Chicago—residents have pushed back against proposed rate increases.

Chicago's water rates are among the country's lowest, so perhaps that city is due for a hike. But many urban residents are asking a reasonable question: isn't there another solution?

The American Water Works Association has called for federal funding for half the annual replacement costs, or about $15 billion each year, according to the AWWA's Tom Curtis. This seems reasonable, considering the U.S. government pays about 80 percent of the costs for replacing roads, bridges, and airports.

Alex Mattheissen, of New York-based clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper, supports legislation to establish a Clean Water Trust Fund or the creation of a National Development Infrastructure Bank that would combine public and private funding. Others are calling for the creation of a single office overseeing national water policy and supply, with a comprehensive national strategy to prioritize decision-making and expenditure. But considering the exorbitant replacement costs, any federal commitment is unlikely to be a game-changer.

“It would be great if the federal government got back into the funding game, but even if they did it wouldn't be at a level that would make that much of a difference,” says Kirk, head of NWACA. “Local governments are going to continue to bear the brunt of the cost of infrastructure improvements. So we have to put local governments and utilities in a position to spend those dollars more wisely, more cost-effectively. We're talking about green infrastructure, new technologies, more flexibility.”

In order to avoid another major overhaul down the line, our 19th century water infrastructure systems must be replaced with 21st century technologies. Scientists are working on pipes that sense when they are about to break and call for repairs, sensors that evaluate water quality and systems that adjust reservoirs in danger of flooding.

George Hawkins, head of DC Water, Washington, D.C.'s water and sewer authority, has installed leak-detecting sensors that immediately send data back to a central control room. This has enabled the city to identify and repair aging pipes and valves before they blow, which necessitates costly replacement. The technology is also credited with reducing leakage loss by more than a third.

An engineering professor at Virginia Tech University is working with the EPA and water utilities to develop a system called Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management, or SWIM. Some cities are unsure exactly where their pipes run, what they're made of or when they were first installed. SWIM offers electronic, Internet-based mapping and monitoring of buried water infrastructure, helping a water utility gauge the condition of its pipelines from above ground. The system is already in use in Las Vegas and Chicago, with Seattle, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas up next.

Engineers at the University of California, Irvine have developed prototype robots that can repair and retrofit aging water pipes by applying reinforcement material rather than excavating and replacing the entire pipeline, saving time and money.

Still, cities and their residents will continue to shoulder the majority of the expense. A recent NACWA report [PDF] estimates that the costs of upgrading water infrastructure will in the coming years lead to increased debt and possibly economic contraction, which means rising water rates in many U.S. cities.

For decades we've paid very little for the most necessary of commodities. A survey last year by ITT, a leading provider of wastewater systems, found that two-thirds of Americans take their water for granted. Yet that same percentage would be willing to pay a little more to rebuild aging water systems.

A day after Mayor Emanuel held his news conference to announce Chicago's upgrade, a 91-year-old South Side water main burst as if on cue, closing streets, flooding nearby basements and curbing area water supply. To those poised to complain about pricier water: consider the possibility of a few days without it.


*An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the 18th and 19th centuries as opposed to the 19th and early 20th century. We apologize for any confusion.

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