This story from the New York Times last November really got me thinking. Their coverage relates how cast iron and plastic pipe interests are engaged in a lobbying war over a potential $300 billion market to replace aging water pipes throughout American streets. I have no interest in taking sides in that squabble. What does knock me for a loop, however, is the sheer scope of our crumbling water infrastructure as reported in that story.
The Need to Rebuild Our Water Infrastructure
Municipal water and sewer pipes span some 1.6 million miles throughout the U.S. The NY Times reports that by 2020 their average age will hit 45 years and at least 600 towns and counties have cast iron pipes that are more than a century old – some more than 150 years old. Some municipalities still rely on ancient lead pipes with their associated health hazards from leached lead. Remember Flint?
Underground water leaks waste an estimated 2.1 trillion gallons of water each year, enough to put Manhattan 300 feet under water. The news increasingly is filled with catastrophic pipe bursts, like this one a few years ago that threatened to turn UCLA’s famed basketball arena into a water polo facility. In places like Florida, sinkholes related to leaking underground pipes all too frequently devour autos and homes.
The need to rebuild our infrastructure is one of the rare issues that today’s hyper-partisan politicians seem to agree on, but nobody has figured out a way to pay for it. So sinkholes and water main breaks continue to provide dramatic footage for TV news shows.
Here in California most of our towns and cities are not as old as those back east, so our water pipes may not be in as bad of shape overall – although as the UCLA episode showed, we’re hardly immune to catastrophic breakdowns. Even more worrisome is the sorry state of our storage systems – the complex network of dams, levees, bypasses and reservoirs that we rely on to protect against flooding and bring water from the rainy northern part of the state to our parched areas down south. You may recall the situation at the Oroville Dam last year, which drew attention to the dangers of crumbling infrastructure.
Whether your politics bends right or left, protecting our water supplies is an issue that all of us can agree must be addressed. We can argue about how to pay for it, but we better come up with solutions pretty soon, because a day of reckoning is rapidly approaching.