Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

Who Should Pay for Aging Water Infrastructure?

Who Should Pay for Aging Water Infrastructure?
Reuters

Infrastructure is expensive. That's all the more true when the infrastructure in question is a creaky water system in an aging city. David Lepeska explains it this way:

Failing water infrastructure has been making headlines for over a decade, to little effect. In 1998, a 128-year-old water main burst under Fifth Avenue in New York, flooding several streets, creating a 35-foot-crater and rupturing a gas line that shot flames 20 feet into the air. In 2001, the American Water Works Association published a report [PDF] about the "Replacement Era" that warned that our nation's pipes were reaching their expiration date.

ow it's nearly 2012, yet water systems in Washington, Alaska and North Dakota still use wooden pipes. This past summer, pipelines burst across the country due to record heat. Oklahoma City's utilities department recorded 685 main breaks from July to early September.

The ASCE says leaks cost us seven billion gallons of water each day—nearly 2 trillion of gallons of water, worth nearly $3 billion, every year. The EPA estimates 700 water mains break every day, or nearly one every two minutes.

In this week's The Big Fix, we asked how cities should pay for the overhauls these systems will inevitably require. Below, some of the best responses we received:

Some felt the federal government should not be paying for local water systems. Aaron M. Renn:

Water is fundamentally local. It doesn't even have the concept of a regional grid, much less a national one. Plus, rational consumption levels and conservation will never come into place until people are paying the full cost of the water they use. The federal government after all, is just us by another name. They don't have access to some magic pots of money (unless you count the illusion of debt). Transferring things to the federal government will only result in more inefficiency, baroque and costly regulation, and lots of subsidization of consumption.
 

Others disagreed. Commenter Harry Williamson on why outside support is sometimes necessary:

The water department I work for gets about two million a year in revenue. That covers operations and most large-scale maintenance. We have had two major replacement projects the last five years. They cost about $500,000 give or take. Most of our system is 50+ years old, with significant portions in the 70 to 100 year range. Two percent a year replacement is not going to cut it, but to even get that rates would have to go up 25 to 35 percent.

Drfinlay suggests privatization:

In the UK the water supply was privatized precisely because the Conservative Government could see a huge repair bill coming towards it to replace the Victorian drinking and waste water systems. There is still a lot to do, but on the whole its been successful - although the regulator has allowed bills to go up significantly. The problem facing Government is that hardly anyone is interested in water. It falls from the sky and it comes out of the tap. There are no votes in spending money on the water supply, people expect it to be there.

Acacia80 had a suggestion for a program to reduce water waste.

As a recent grad who rents, I have very limited control over the efficiency of my appliances and it is near impossible to prove to your landlord that you have a leak ... we need incentives for landlords as well as home-owners (unlike Obama's weatherization program) and to think about long-term conservation solutions. The solution to these issues doesn't always need to involve public utilities, there are solutions that can be implemented on an individual or community basis. There really isn't any reason that we should be watering our lawn and flushing our toilets with drinking water, for one.

And the last word from water_friendly_architect:

We need to start thinking more sustainably about water infrastructure. As density continues to increase in cities the existing pipes will not be able to handle the increased volume. One idea should be to redefine infrastructure as a set of smaller nodes/pieces within a greater system. For example, a new development should implement a system of on-site water treatment which can treat all domestic waste water, store it, and finally reuse it. This has the potential to reduce the volume of potable water entering the system, and greatly reduces the volume of waste water leaving the system. Even if the water which is treated will only be used for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation, the surplus water which will exist from one building can be shared with another.

Keywords: Infrastructure, Water

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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