Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure
"in a gully-washing downpour, a serious thunderstorm or when 10 inches of rapidly melting snow gushes down the sewer grate, the system gets unruly. The path to the treatment plant becomes overwhelmed, and a filthy mix spews from 53 different outlets into the three tributaries."
At first glance, the pizza-size hole that popped open when a heavy truck passed over a freshly paved District street seemed fairly minor.
Then city inspectors got on their bellies with a flashlight to peer into it. What they discovered has become far too common. A massive 19th-century brick sewer had silently eroded away, leaving a cavern beneath a street in Adams Morgan that could have swallowed most of a Metro bus.
It took three weeks and about a million dollars to repair the sewer, which was built in 1889.
Time and wear “had torn off all the bricks and sent them God knows where,” saidGeorge S. Hawkins, general manager of theDistrict of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. “We have to find them and see if they’re plugging up the system somewhere farther down the line.”
If it were not buried underground, the water and sewer system that serves the nation’s capital could be an advertisement for Band-Aids. And it is not much different from any other major system in the country, including those in many suburbs and in cities less than half as old as Washington.
Although they are out of sight and out of mind except when they spring a leak, water and sewer systems are more vital to civilized society than any other aspect of infrastructure.
Rapidly deteriorating roads and bridges may stifle America’s economy and turn transportation headaches into nightmares, but if the nation’s water and sewer systems begin to fail, life as we know it will too. Without an ample supply of water, people don’t drink, toilets don’t flush, factories don’t operate, offices shut down and fires go unchecked. When sewage systems fail, cities can’t function and epidemics break out.
“All the big cities have these problems, and to me it’s the unseen catastrophe,” Hawkins said. “My humble view is that the industry we’re in is the bedrock of civilization because it’s not just an infrastructure that is a convenience, that allows you to get to work faster or slower. At least with bridges or a road, people have some idea of what it is because they drive on them and see them. ”
And just like roads and bridges, the vast majority of the country’s water systems are in urgent need of repair and replacement. At a Senate hearing last month, it was estimated that, on average, 25 percent of drinking water leaks from water system pipes before reaching the faucet. The same committee was told it will take $335 billion to resurrect water systems and $300 billion to fix sewer systems.
There is no better illustration of the looming national crisis than the District’s system. The average D.C. water pipe is 77 years old, but a great many were laid in the 19th century. Sewers are even older. Most should have been replaced decades ago.