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Pipe Dreams: America’s failing wastewater infrastructure and what we can do to fix it


March, 2017

M. DeHart

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Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

One simple strategy can lead to water savings across the board.  

Pipes are not made to be useful forever. Especially when degradation factors are put into light,  remembering that eventually these underground systems need to be replaced is essential. In the United States, many pipes used in water and wastewater systems are as old as the Civil War. The American Water Works Association estimates that one-sixth of treated water, over 2 trillion gallons, is lost every year. This breaks down to 6 billion gallons a day.  The deluge of lost water is translated into millions of dollars wasted from taxpayer money.

In terms of grades, the U.S. wastewater infrastructure has a “D+.”

Steps have been made during the last five years to work towards fixing the wastewater system in the U.S. The 2013 infrastructure report given by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave wastewater a D, and in the time between billions of dollars have been allocated to revitalization. However, it is still the case that many sections of pipes are over 60 or even 100 years old. As these pipes are nearing- or in some cases past- the end of their useful life, it has become the task for current generations to deal with the consequences of regularly breaking pipes.

Age is not the only breakage factor.

Even with “younger” sections, ground conditions can reduce the average pipe’s life. Earthquakes or even the slight changes in the ground from heavy rain, wintery weather, or regular traffic can bend or puncture pipes. It is important that pipes have a firm surrounding, especially if they are located in swampy areas or underwater where regular shifting is involved.

Replacing is costly, but prevention is possible.

The task of replacing all antiquated pipes in the U.S. water infrastructure would cost over $1 trillion. In towns that suffer from budget restraints, the spending involved in completely renewing their water systems is a task that would be hard-pressed to complete. The back-up question would be how could the wastewater systems remain durable without replacing the pipes as a whole?

Putting proper restrains in key areas of the pipe system is a good place to start. Connection points in particular benefit from restraining techniques since increased water flow makes them a possible weak link. Identifying areas prone to ground movement and installing restraints in those sections is a proactive way to ensure that pipes will not break prematurely. Measuring systems are also in need of an upgrade. Knowing when a leak is happening exactly when it’s happening allows for a faster response time and reduction in wasted water.  Until enough proper funds are allocated to replace the existing water and wastewater infrastructure, prevention steps need to be taken.

Some suggest the water and wastewater sectors be privatized. Let us know in the comments where you stand.

  1. http://www.npr.org/2014/10/29/359875321/as-infrastructure-crumbles-trillions-of-gallons-of-water-lost
  2. https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/
  3. http://www.wwdmag.com/pipeline-rehabilitation/how-maintain-pipe-integrity


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