Ryan J. Foley: The Midwest Water Crisis Has Begun

Associated Press:

Unlike pothole-scarred roads or crumbling bridges, decaying water systems often go unnoticed until they fail. “Buried infrastructure is out of sight, out of mind. We take it for granted. We turn on the faucet and we get good, clean, quality water,” said Will Williams, head of asset management for the engineering firm Black & Veatch and an expert on water infrastructure.

When failures happen, help can be hard to come by. Without big changes in national policy, local governments and their ratepayers will be largely on their own in paying for the upgrades. The amount of federal money available for drinking-water improvements is just a drop in the bucket...

More than a million miles of underground pipes distribute water to American homes, and maintaining that network remains the largest and costliest long-term concern.

Some pipes date back to the 1800s. As they get older, they fail in different ways. Some split and rupture, with an estimated 700 main breaks occurring around the U.S. every day. The most devastating failures damage roadways, close businesses and shut off service for hours or days. If pipes are particularly bad, they can contaminate water.

Utilities have long struggled to predict when to replace pipes, which have vastly different life cycles depending on the materials they are made from and where they are buried. Some might last 30 years, others more than 100. Sophisticated computer programs are helping some water systems prioritize the order in which pipes should be replaced, but tight budgets often mean the fixes don’t come until it’s too late.

Replacing a single mile of water main can cost from $500,000 to more than $1 million, but doing so is far more disruptive to customers if it fails first. Experts say a peak of up to 20,000 miles of pipe will need to be replaced annually beginning around 2035, up from roughly 5,000 miles currently. Des Moines Water Works alone has 1,600 miles of distribution pipes.

Also see this  AP article on the federal aid program for improving the nation's drinking water systems, and another Foley article on the water crisis.