Guest Column | December 11, 2017

On The Brink: Dealing With America's Aging Water Infrastructure

By Margaret West, IBISWorld Procurement Research Analyst

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The U.S. is currently facing a water crisis. Potable water is scarce and considered valuable everywhere in the world. However, with the infrastructure that is currently in place, the U.S. has been squandering this precious resource. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, about 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost every day due to broken and leaky pipes alone. Much of the present infrastructure can be dated to the early 1900s. The lifespan of pipes from that era is typically 75 to 100 years, indicating that many of the country’s water mains, pumps, and pipelines are either in dire need of replacement or are coming close to it. As a result, IBISWorld expects the cost of water treatment products and repair services to increase as the system continues to erode. The consequences of an aging water infrastructure are expensive and harmful, and local and regional water utilities need to address this issue before America’s system completely fails.

Los Angeles’ Aging Infrastructure

Leaky and corroded pipes not only lead to water waste, but also damage to the surrounding area. For example, in July of 2014 a water main in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles burst and damaged five buildings, several athletic fields, and garages on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. The Los Angeles Times reported that the university submitted a claim of $13 million for the damage, which excluded hundreds of privately owned vehicles that were impaired by the flooding. Damage to property and the environment is guaranteed in the event of a big leak like a water main break. Sinkholes are a common consequence of ruptured water lines, and some have the potential to swallow cars and blow out debris and asphalt-laid roads. Fortunately for UCLA, however, no sinkhole formed from the break. The cause of the leaky pipelines can be traced to aging infrastructure. The water main in Westwood was 90 years old and at the end of its lifespan. Furthermore, the lines that had burst were badly corroded and had five leaks prior to the burst, yet neither were scheduled for replacement. The lack of care led to a rush of an estimated 20 million gallons of water into Westwood and cost millions of dollars in repairs.

Water Contamination And Flint, Michigan

Another problem of the aging water infrastructure is contamination. According to the U.S. EPA, at least 10 million homes and buildings in the U.S. receive water from lead pipelines. Water treatment plants add chemicals to prevent lead leaching into the water, but when the chemistry of the water changes, the amount of chemicals have to be adjusted in order to be effective. Water chemistry can change due to sewage spills, industrial waste, and climate change. In the case of Flint, MI in 2014, the city switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River, which had a different chemical composition. Although Flint did disinfect the water, they failed to add a key water treatment chemical, orthophosphate, to the water. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, the principal investigator of the study confirmed that “the lack of phosphate in the water was to blame for the dramatic release of lead in the system.” Residents of Flint now have to deal with the health problems associated with lead poisoning, including brain damage, behavioral problems, and developmental problems. While the water has been ruled as compliant with federal lead content regulations as of 2017, some residents are currently still unable to drink from the tap. The caution is due to the fact that the water may travel through corroded pipes that might still leach lead and make the water toxic. The city is trying to replace the unsafe lead pipes, but it lacks the data and funding to do so.

Will Updating Infrastructure Raise Prices For Residents?

The consequences of the aging water infrastructure have been extensive, costing millions of dollars in damage to public and private property, and harming people’s health irreparably. Yet local and regional water utilities have not moved to fix their leaky, corroded pipelines. The solution to America’s water infrastructure problem is no easy task. Solutions that require overhauling the entire water system are expensive. Local and regional water utilities have to consider the cost of shutting off the water system, the cost of new pipes, and the cost of installation. Research from IBISWorld indicates that water pipes are going to become more expensive in the next few years, raising the cost of replacement. These costs are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher water prices. For example, Chicago enacted a plan to replace its outdated wooden water mains in 2012. The Chicago Tribune detailed the project and cited that the city raised its water prices by 90 percent over the following four years. The risk of this method is that lower-income residents may not be able to afford to pay for water, which is an essential resource. The Chicago Tribune interviewed residents in lower-income areas and many talked of not being able to shower, use the bathroom, or wash dishes because they didn’t have the money to pay the water bill.

A Solution For Safe Water

Organizations and municipalities that want to improve their water infrastructure and avoid spiking water prices can consider developing a water infrastructure plan and applying for loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing, and the Department of Commerce. While the government funds devoted to water infrastructure have declined over the years, local and regional water utilities can use the funding they receive to finance infrastructure repairs and replacement. Government loans will likely not cover the entire cost of repairs, but local and regional water utilities can use them in conjunction with slightly increased water prices. The money provided by the government can help local and regional water utilities avoid raising water prices substantially, though not avoid an increase altogether. Another solution is to create a tax subsidy to fund water projects. For instance, Atlanta uses a 1-cent sales tax to fund the state’s water and sewer projects. If system replacements are scheduled for a later date, water companies can invest in current technology to mitigate the risk of water main bursts and lead poisoning. Old water meters can be repaired or replaced to more accurately record the amount of water flowing into a municipal system and help pinpoint leaks in street pipes. Water plants can also install better water pump and control systems. Other equipment that helps monitor the status of the pipes and the water flowing inside of them are smart meters, pressure measurement instrumentation, flow measurement instrumentation, and water quality testing equipment. Internet of Things (IoT) versions of those devices further boost their effectiveness in catching leaks and changes in water quality before they become a bigger issue. IoT allows local and regional water utilities to collect real-time data and spot pipes and pumps that need to be repaired or replaced faster. As the infrastructure ages and becomes prone to more problems, IBISWorld expects demand for equipment that helps monitor pipe conditions and water quality to rise, resulting in higher device prices.

However, spot fixing only acts as a band-aid to the infrastructure problem. Eventually, local and regional water utilities will need to replace their current system or they risk a disaster like Flint’s or UCLA’s. Until then, they will need to develop a water infrastructure plan and invest in devices that will allow them to better monitor their system.

Image credit: "water dropes freeze," AL-MUQDAD AL-MAAWALI, 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/