img Opinions

Addressing America's Water Pipeline Puzzle
ONC Editorial

Aug 24, 2023

The American water pipeline system is deteriorating at a rate that is failing to keep up with demands. (The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.)

In the 21st century, the U.S., as a nation, has largely associated the subject of water with location-specific events. The city of Flint, Michigan, the islands making up the Florida Keys, and even the entire state of California often stand in for the popular image of America's water infrastructure, as their drinking water, rising sea levels and droughts have devastated and threatened their residents. 

America’s water infrastructure in its current decline is a national issue, in large part because our water supplies are not as localized as we imagine.  

Drinking water is delivered via 1 million miles of pipes across the U.S, and the pipes' age and material have huge variations. They are made ​​of cast iron, ductile iron, lead, polyvinyl chloride or, occasionally, wood and, recently, plastic. 

The date of construction also varies, since some cities and towns are much newer than others. But location is not the end all be all for where your water comes from, because many pipelines were built to transport water across great distances to supply other areas. 

New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles all built massive imported water systems to sustain their much larger urban populations in the late 19th century. The Colorado River, alone, supplies drinking water to about 10 percent of the nation’s population. But the river’s water levels have been falling since the 2000s because of increased demand from both farmers and cities, as well as climate impacts, which leaves cities throughout the Southwest with a looming shortage of water and an increase in prices. 

California and Texas have already experienced historic droughts, and some counties have taken actions towards becoming more self-sufficient when it comes to accessing water. Atlanta (GA), Tampa (FL) and Charlotte (NC), on the other hand, are approaching a point where their own local water supplies cannot keep up with their growth in population. 

In addition to amounts of water itself, the pipeline system is deteriorating at a rate that is failing to keep up with demand.  The lifespan of water pipes is estimated to be between 75 and 100 years, and the average age of U.S. pipelines is fifty years. This may not make matters seem all too urgent, but the crisis lies more in the amount of damage much older pipes can cause, and the alarming number of them that exist. 

An entire third of the country’s pipelines were laid between 1900 and 1920, but some of the oldest pipes still in use are closer to 150 years old. Corrosion is the leading cause of pipeline failure, and the number of significant incidents has been increasing each year since 2006. 

Corrosion of lead pipes caused Flint's deadly lead water contamination crisis beginning in 2014, and although Congress banned the use of lead pipes over thirty years ago, more than ten million older lead water pipes across all 50 states are estimated to still exist, and 44 million Americans rely currently on water sources that violate Safe Drinking Act Requirements. 

With an already weak pipeline system, rising sea levels in flood plains and coastal areas threaten drinking water and sewage treatment plants, and repeated catastrophic storms have the potential to overwhelm water treatment abilities. The need to replace pipelines comes coupled, too, with a need to extend them, as 2 million Americans remain without running water to begin with. 

Many questions remain unanswered about the future of water, from how funding will be made possible given how much is left up to state and municipal governments, to what material to use to ensure sustainable, safe drinking water. And how will we make this available for all, since Native territories and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by unsafe and insufficient water supplies?

We've made progress over the last decade, as plastics have been found to potentially serve as safe, highly affordable materials for constructing new pipes as quickly as possible, and in the largest form of federal investment in infrastructure in a generation, the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dedicated approximately $82.5 billion to critical water infrastructure improvements and even addressing relevant climate impacts. 

A step in a perhaps more unified direction towards investment and regulation, the historic bill calls to our attention the nation-wide significance of our water pipeline system’s failings and future.

Gabriella Matos was an Infrastructure intern for ONC during the Spring 2022 semester. 

To see all sources, click HERE

comments powered by Disqus

Video Site Tour


Subscribe to ONC Newsletter.