It was a little over two years ago when a water main break threatened to turn UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion into a water polo facility. I wrote about it in this space as one of many infrastructure disasters that have occurred across the country. Remember the 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes, or another one in Allentown, PA in 2011, in which five people died? How about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured 145?
I was reminded of these catastrophes after reading an article in the June 22, 2016, Wall Street Journal about all the water leaks that are costing cash-strapped cities throughout the country millions of dollars in repairs – in some cases, emergency repairs like we witnessed with the UCLA-area flood in 2014. The Journal article reported an EPA estimate that our country’s utilities lose about $2.6 billion annually from trillions of gallons of drinking water leaking away. That’s especially hurtful to read when you’re a citizen of our water-starved Southern California. The article also cited an estimate from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that around 240,000 water main breaks occur every year in the US. In 2013, an EPA report cited the need for at least $384 billion needed for repairs and improvements in our public water infrastructure through 2030.
Part of the problem is that water main leaks are not always easy to spot. Our nation has an estimated 1.8 million miles of underground water lines, many of them put down more than a century ago. In many cases, records of these installations have been lost or are gathering cobwebs in rusty file cabinets tucked away in the back rooms of municipal offices. Usually, we have no way of knowing about a leak until it forms puddles at the surface. Worse, instead of puddling, a leak can eat away at underground soil and form a sinkhole that can swallow people, cars, and even homes. Or, a pipe suddenly bursts open and causes massive flooding like outside of UCLA in 2014.
It’s worth repeating what I wrote two years ago after that disaster: investing in water and wastewater facilities is a hard sell politically. Politicians love to channel money into stunning buildings and other fancy projects – and love it, even more, when the structures get named after them. I’ve yet to hear of one who wants his or her name attached to a water main or wastewater treatment plant.
Infrastructure is a doubly hard sell at a time when worrisome budget deficits dominate much political debate, and the amounts needed for infrastructure are staggering – upwards of $1 trillion over the next two decades for water projects alone. The costs are great because repairing or replacing underground water and sewer mains involve tearing up streets. Not only is this expensive, it annoys the public and disrupts commerce. Like getting a rotten tooth pulled, some things are painful but necessary.
A better argument can be made for stepping up infrastructure spending than most other government largesse. In 2011 the ASCE sounded an alarm with a study that tied the lack of infrastructure investment to economic losses to consumers and businesses. ASCE calculated that American households will spend $900 per year in higher water rates and lower wages, while businesses will suffer $147 billion in increased costs, plus the loss of 700,000 jobs by 2020.
Here in California, geologists warn of a potential statewide catastrophe from a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Valley that could cause dozens of levee breaches. In this scenario, 300 billion gallons of salt water from San Francisco Bay would contaminate the fresh water supply for two-thirds of California, affecting some 10 million people. It would take months for the water supply to recover. If those levees don’t get shored up, we could experience a disaster surpassing what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.
We at Dutton Plumbing are well equipped to fix plumbing problems that originate in the home or in the lines that connect your home to municipal water and sewer mains. But if the water mains shut off or bleed their contents, we are as helpless as the rest of you. Then, we can only act as concerned citizens urging our political leaders to do what is not only right but absolutely necessary to protect us from the ravages of crumbling infrastructure.