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Water Infrastructure: A Quietly Ticking Time Bomb

Water system problems are a quiet local crisis. If we're going to ensure we have access to safe drinking water across the nation, America’s water managers will have to pick up the pace.

Rusted water pipes.
Source: Pixabay
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The little hamlet of Kerhonkson, in the rural Ulster County town of Wawarsing, recently received a federal grant of $1.5 million to tear out and replace a few miles’ worth of aging water pipes made of cast iron and asbestos cement.

With just a few hundred households in the water district, the 2019 grant, from the US Department of Agriculture, is investing thousands of dollars for every person that drinks from the taps of the Kerhonkson Water and Sewer District. And the grant is only the latest phase of a multimillion-dollar water system rehabilitation project that has been underway for years. Kerhonkson’s water system problems are far beyond the capacity of the town of Wawarsing, or the revenue collected by local taxpayers and water customers, to fix.

If Kerhonkson were unique, the tremendous costs of upgrading the system wouldn’t be so worrisome. But water systems that are degrading, relying on contaminated or depleted sources, or riddled with unsafe materials are the norm, not the exception. All across the nation, water districts large and small are quietly accumulating decay and increasingly failing. In a few cases, like the notorious poisoning of the people of Flint, Michigan by lead in outdated pipes, the issue rises to national attention. But mostly, water system problems are a quiet—and local—crisis.

If we hope to ensure that the nation has access to safe drinking water, America’s water managers will have to pick up the pace. Old drinking water pipes are being replaced at an average of 0.5 percent per year in the US, according to the latest Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—a rate that would take 200 years to get to every pipe in a network whose branches have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, and much of which is approaching (or past) its expiration date. The ASCE gives our national drinking water infrastructure a D grade. Wastewater systems, which are governed by the same districts that run drinking water, fare only slightly better with a D-plus.

At particular risk are the smallest systems, like Kerhonkson’s, that have neither the technical expertise nor the critical mass to handle their own problems without significant help from higher levels of government. The ASCE writes:

Most Americans—just under 300 million people—receive their drinking water from one of the nation’s 51,356 community water systems. Of these, just 8,674 systems, or approximately 17%, serve close to 92% of the total population, or approximately 272.6 million people. Small systems that serve the remaining 8% of the population frequently lack both economies of scale and financial, managerial, and technical capacity, which can lead to problems of meeting Safe Drinking Water Act standards. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our national water infrastructure a D grade. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Some Places, the Crisis Is Already Here

One thing is certain: Kerhonkson is lucky. For examples of rural water districts where problems have advanced so far that people can no longer drink out of their own taps, look to communities in Kentucky and West Virginia, the focus of a six-month collaborative journalism project called “Stirring The Waters.” From one segment, reported in Gary, West Virginia:

Each morning Tina Coleman turns her faucet, she waits to see what color the water will be when, or if, it flows out.

Some days it’s blue or green—earthy tones that could be comforting in a river bed surrounded by trees, instead of filling the porcelain tub she uses to bathe her 9-month-old grandson. Other days, the water looks like different shades of rust: deep, coppery reds and browns. Sometimes it’s white and cloudy, as if a powder, thoroughly stirred, is about to dissolve.

In some rural communities, lack of access to wastewater disposal has become an equally dire public health crisis. In 2017, a shocking United Nations report found that hookworm—a disease associated with extreme poverty in developing countries—was epidemic in rural Alabama, thanks to a lack of proper water infrastructure. Last year, Scalawag, a magazine for Southern issues and politics, struck a more hopeful tone with a report on local collaborations looking for innovative ways to address the crisis.

Back in 2012, the American Water Works Association estimated the cost of restoring our existing water systems at $1 trillion over the next 25 years, a figure that makes the cost of building our interstate highway system look like chump change. That figure has undoubtedly risen over the past seven years. It would take more than money to make that kind of investment happen: it would take a national will to commit to the task—and the expense—of rebuilding the systems that support us at the most basic level.

In 2017, Popular Mechanics took a look back at the New Deal, the last time our nation made a deep commitment to infrastructure. Could it happen again? Matt Blitz writes:

It’s mostly impossible to recreate a New Deal for a new century. America was a much, much different place in 1933. It was significantly more rural, there were far fewer people, and unemployment was at record highs. It was also poorer, less hopeful, and a much larger need to create new infrastructure rather than rebuilding what already existed.

But it was during this moment of country-wide despair when then-New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped to the podium as the commencement speaker for Oglethorpe University’s 1932 graduating class, and gave advice that now reaches down through history. In his speech, he told the onlooking flock of soon-to-be graduates that “the country needs… demands bold, persistent experimentation…it is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Although America’s new dilemma is far from similar, the answer remains the same.