News Feature | August 27, 2014

Aging Water Infrastructure: The Problem No One Is Paying Attention To

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


It's no secret that water infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling. 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, "At the dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States." 

So when are we actually going to get around to fixing it?

It may not be anytime soon. The due dates for replacing water mains run hundreds of years apart.

Writer Charles Fishman, author of a book focused on the water industry called The Big Thirst, explained these cycles in an interview with NPR.

"Los Angeles Water will tell you they are on a 300-year water main replacement cycle. Washington, [D.C.], used to be on a 300-year water main replacement cycle; now we're on a 200-year water main replacement cycle. We're not actually planning to replace most of the water mains any time in our lifetime or the lifetime of our kids or their kids," he said. 

According to Fishman, it's not because the water mains are so sturdy they can last that long. 

"The reason is because we don't pay attention to the water system," he said.

Fishman advocated for a solution ratepayers might be wary of: raising the price of water.

"We don't pay enough for the water we use to cover modernizing the system. We get a great deal. The average water bill is $34 a month for an American family. Basically, all the water you need costs a dollar a day. The truth is that if everybody paid 10 bucks a month more on their water bill, we could step up the improvement of the water system," he said. 

Any good news?

"We're seeing this sort of popcorn-popping of problems everywhere. The nice thing about water is, all water problems are solvable, just like the leak in the roof of your house is solvable. They aren't solvable if you close your eyes. They aren't solvable if you ignore them," he said.

In the meantime, aging infrastructure is causing safety hazards around the country.

"There were unexpected showers outside Boston [on Aug. 9]. A ruptured water main in Brookline sent a plume of water 80 feet into the air. The break occurred just blocks away from a reservoir. Saturday's break is only the latest in a series of mishaps - some far more serious - that are raising questions about the safety of aging water systems in this country," CBS Evening News reported

States appear to be moving on their own time tables when it comes to water infrastructure updates.

Just this month in New Jersey, "legislation authorizing $1.28 billion in state financing for drinking water and wastewater improvement projects will also allocate $355 million for resiliency and protection projects for Sandy-damaged infrastructure," New Jersey 101.5 reported

For more on policy and politics, check out Water Online's Regulations & Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "water main," MTAPhotos © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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