Recommended Reading on Our Nation’s Failing Water Infrastructure

We are using this week’s post to highlight a recent article by AP’s Ryan Foley detailing the water infrastructure crisis developing in cities across the U.S.

Foley explains how after decades of keeping water rates low and putting off repairs and maintenance, World War II-era drinking water systems all over the country are in desperate need of replacement. The costs of necessary repairs and replacement are staggering (we have reported before on the EPA’s estimate of $384 billion over the next two decades to maintain the nation’s existing water systems) and as Foley points out, the costs of inaction are increasingly evident in communities nationwide.

Foley focuses on Des Moines, Iowa and its water system, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), which serves roughly a half million residents with water cleansed of harmful nitrates that come from the state’s extensive farmland. He explains that after decades of service, DMWW is facing a variety of intractable problems:  water mains are breaking hundreds of times annually, rivers are polluted, and the city can’t afford the $150 million cost of replacing a treatment plant that was built in the 1940s. A particular challenge for the utility has been nitrate levels that far exceed the federal standard for safety in the two rivers that provide DMWW’s source water. Cleansing the city’s water of these nitrates is an extremely costly process, and even if the city could come up with the funds to build a nitrate removal plant to replace its current outdated technology, that would leave less money available to replace the area’s aging and failing pipes.

Local communities all over the country are confronting the same type of crisis that Foley describes facing Des Moines. Funds are desperately needed to replace crumbling pipes and other infrastructure – sometimes more than a century old – and declining federal investment in this area has left local governments on their own and unable to pay for upgrades. And as Foley points out, unlike failing roads and bridges, deteriorating water systems are buried, so they often go unnoticed until they fail. And when they fail (which they do with alarming frequency; an estimated 700 water main breaks occur every day in the U.S.), the impact on residents’ health and safety and the disruption in their daily lives is enormous. We at CWC have chronicled the devastation wrought by water infrastructure failures – sickness from contaminated water, interruptions in service, schools, roads, and businesses forced to close, for example – in towns all over the country.

Foley cites the more than million miles of  underground pipes that distribute water to homes in the U.S., and how properly maintaining that network remains the largest  and costliest long-term concern. But as he writes, pipes represent just one of the many types of infrastructure that desperately need investment. Des Moines is not unique in its need for a new water treatment plant, for example. Many localities are served by plants built nearly 100 years ago and face replacement costs of tens of millions of dollars. And as we have written before, population declines and conservation have drained local government water usage revenues, leaving cities and towns with depleted resources at a time when infrastructure demands are at crisis levels.

All of these pressures are dramatically illustrated by the situation in Des Moines, as Foley details. But sadly, Des Moines is not alone. We at CWC are pushing hard for a larger and more active federal financing role to help communities like Des Moines experiencing crisis levels of water infrastructure decay.

Click here to read the AP piece in full.

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About Clean Water Council

The Clean Water Council (CWC) is a group of national organizations representing underground construction contractors design professionals, manufacturers and suppliers, labor unions and other committed to ensuring a high quality of life through sound environmental infrastructure. Working in concert, CWC's 39 national organizations, advocate federal legislation and policies that will promote clean water and improve the nation's failing infrastructure.​
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