Tuesday, March 20, 2012

America’s Water Infrastructure Shows Its Age — The National Debate About How to Pay for Repairs by Brett Walton

In 1889, the streets of Kearney, Nebraska, were ripped open so that workers could install sewer pipes. The railroad town boomed in the late 19th century and then quickly went bust.

Early Wednesday morning, a faulty patch failed on a water main in suburban Washington, D.C., creating a sinkhole the size of a king bed that closed the road above indefinitely.

Just over a week ago, heavy rains inundated the sewer system in San Antonio, Texas. The two affected pipes spilled more than 757,000 liters (200,000 gallons) of untreated sewage into local water bodies.

And last month, tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage poured from a ruptured pipe, slowing rush-hour traffic in Delray Beach, Florida. A water department inspection later found that sewer gases had disintegrated one-third of the 30-year-old pipe.

In ways big and small, water systems across the country are not meeting the basic obligation to provide a reliable supply of clean water. Pipes that deliver drinking water are rusting, clogging, and cracking. Reservoirs are losing storage capacity. During heavy rainstorms, sewers that combine domestic wastewater and street runoff are pouring untreated sewage into lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.

But while the effects of America’s aging and eroding plumbing and water supply system are readily apparent, what to do about it is not. Like so many of the other structural challenges confronting the United States in the early decades of the 21st century – transportation, education, energy, health care, employment – repairing the existing water delivery system and designing new and more efficient equipment and practices is riven by differing views on how infrastructure investments should be funded and which projects are priorities. 

 It’s not hopeless. With a sewer repair program that is more than halfway completed and a new sewer tax that is up for renewal this month, Atlanta is steadily making progress. Philadelphia is pursuing a 25-year program to reduce the amount of stormwater flowing to its treatment plant by soaking up rainfall with absorbent green roofs and more acres of green space, by planting trees, and by restoring wetlands and riparian habitats. 

 Still, other cities are inundated with old equipment and bad decisions. The biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history occurred last November in Jefferson County, Alabama, and is tied to corruption, financial mismanagement, and poor investments in its sewer system. 

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