Water has been a major topic in the news for the past two months. California is in the midst of a severe drought that could easily see the state running out of water within 12-18 months and Detroit residents are left without water due to being unable to pay the high water bills. These situations have been created by a combination of problems including Mother Nature and politics. However, little attention has been given to one major cause: our nationís aging infrastructure.
The oldest iron water pipes in the nation date back to the 1800s. They were designed to last at most 120 years. For many cities around the nation, their water system was installed in the 1920s with pipes expected to last about 100 years. For those with systems installed during WWII, the expected lifespan is around 75 years. While many newer constructions have updated systems, city water grids across the nation are flowing on borrowed time.
The system is already showing the strain.
The EPA notes that there are nearly a quarter of a million water main breaks each year. This averages out to about one break every two minutes. These breaks have led to mudslides in California and sinkholes in Florida. The breaks, as well as leaky pipes, waste millions of gallons of treated drinking water. For drought risk areas in the southwest, this puts a greater strain on water resources already exacerbated by the environment.
While the Federal government has provided some funding to repair the water system, most of the cost has fallen on state and local governments. This cost is eventually passed on to customers. In recent years, water rates have increased higher than the rate of inflation, just as household income has fallen. In a note of irony, as more customers participate in conservation efforts, either by force as in the case of drought stricken California or by choice to lower the expense, water companies are getting less revenue to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure.
This confluence of factors is highlighted best in the crisis facing Detroit.
The recent shutoffs to thousands of poor Detroit residents have caused an international outcry, including pleas to the United Nations to step in. The city has been in a steady state of decline for a decade, which has resulted in a mass exodus of the cityís population. Thousands of homes have been abandoned, demolishing the tax base. The cityís water infrastructure, built in the 1920s, is pressured by age, extreme winters and pipes that remain unused in empty homes. As a result, the water company has increased rates nearly 120 percent in the last decade to cover costs. Now thousands of poor customers and small businesses are forced to bear the brunt of the expense.
The current political climate runs on crisis. From the budget to infrastructure, the current Congress has been incredibly shortsighted in its dealings with the nation’s problems. Early next week, the Senate is expected to vote on a House bill to extend the Highway Trust Fund until May. Itís a temporary fix to a problem that is tied up in a myriad of political complications that essentially boil down to no one willing to take unpopular but necessary action to fix our aging infrastructure. If passed, the bill will keep funding flowing for current projects and, most importantly, keep the fund from going bankrupt prior to the midterm elections.
The bill does not address the nearly $1 trillion needed to repair and upgrade our nationís water infrastructure, including the nationís inland waterways and ports.
With millions of miles of pipes already long past their expected lifespan, and more reaching their expiration date in the coming decade, this is a catastrophe in waiting. It is also one that is entirely preventable. However, it will take the political will to take unpopular but necessary action.
Like with everything else, it will have to wait until after the next electionÖor perhaps the next one after that.
Photo via Thinkstock