Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM) Study

We often take for granted what we don’t see. This is especially true for our infrastructure that’s buried beneath the surface. Underground pipes supply our homes and businesses with access to safe water—keeping us alive. Yet in North America, the emphasis of replacing and upgrading these vital pipes have been widely ignored.

In fact, the number of water main breaks in the past have been staggering: There’s roughly 240,000 main breaks across the country per year, from Syracuse to Los Angeles. Many cities and communities don’t have access to clean drinking water as a consequence of inadequate funding to replace or upgrade aging water pipes.

The Aging Water Pipes

Water pipes are not immortal and deteriorate over time. Most water pipes have a lifespan about 75 years, a number that’s surprisingly lower than the pre-World War II years that had an average lifespan of over 100 years. This means much of the underground pipeline network laid out during the post-World War II economic boom will need to be replaced in the next two decades. The large scale population growth that the United States has seen in the 21st century makes matter more complicated.

How the Nation is Faring

Many cities in the US carry major debt loads, making it difficult to invest in improvements. These are among the many cities that struggle with their water finances. According to a study by Brookings, only 11 out of 97 cities ranked high across six categories of water finance and related economic indicators in 2015.

Research shows there’s a significant discrepancy between the need for investment and the resources available. More than 88 percent of Americans believe there’s a need to take action on infrastructure, but only 17 percent of utilities feel confident they can cover the cost of existing services through rates and fees.

However, some cities are responding well to the water infrastructure crisis by putting more investment into watershed protection. This enables them to safeguard their infrastructure and reduce costs of water treatment.

The Consequences at a Glance

The consequence of backlogging our water infrastructure is costly. After all, our economic and personal livelihood is dependent on access to safe water. Below are 3 main issues that would arise from delaying investments in drinking water infrastructure:

  1. Rising cost in future investments—Currently, the investments needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years. If the investment is delayed, this number would only rise due to increasing rates in pipe breakages.
  2. Deteriorating water service—According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 25% of the nation’s water pipes are in poor conditions, and this number is expected to rise to 45% by 2020 unless new plans are devised and acted upon.
  3. Increase threat to public health and safety—Lead and copper can leach into drinking water if pipelines are corroded. This prolonged exposure can result in a variety of health problems such as brain damage, kidney failure, and gastrointestinal sickness.

What Can Be Done

Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to tackling a behemoth problem like the nation’s underground water infrastructure crisis. Regardless, change needs to be underway if we want to see improvements. Below are some solutions that would alleviate the situation:

  • Innovative funding solutions—One approach is for cities to view drinking water wastewater needs as part of a continuum. For example, Los Angeles adopted a One Water La 2040 Plan to coordinate water management across all city departments, which led to funding more than $10 billion in capital improvements.
  • Technology—Technologies like smart water main monitoring and predictive analytics could help identify potential asset failures and accelerate repairs could cut cost on operations.
  • Careful development plans—Investing in underground infrastructure is expensive. That’s why careful planning is needed when it comes to developing watershed investment programs. Some factors to consider include identifying risks and financing mechanisms, defining clear roles and plans for program administration, and monitoring and evaluating performance.
  • More conversation—Increase public awareness and engagement around this topic could propel policy makers, governments, and investors to take action.

Time Is of the Essence

The Underground Water Infrastructure crisis in our nation is dire. Left unchecked, the state of our underground infrastructure would only worsen. While many may feel impotent in addressing this issue, everyone can take part in making a difference. This can start with spreading awareness of the "buried" issue.