The U.S. water infrastructure isn’t making the grade—in fact, it’s dangerously close to flunking. Best case scenario, leaky pipes continue to waste trillions of gallons of water every year. Worst case scenario, crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, are repeated all over the country.
The infrastructure for the pipes that carry drinking water across the country has a lifespan of less than 100 years, but those pipes were laid in the mid-20th century, without being adequately maintained. Currently, the money being used to maintain our water infrastructure accounts for only one-third of the water being consumed in the U.S. One-trillion dollars will be needed to maintain, repair, and expand the existing infrastructure over the next 25 years to ensure safe drinking water. Nearly half of this investment would go into the expansion of new pipes, but the majority would go toward replacement in those areas that do not have clean drinking water.
The most glaring example of a possible future for America has already been shown in Flint, Michigan. This significant structural water crisis developed into a health crisis in 2014 when lead from the pipes ended up in the drinking water. Later, disinfection byproducts and bacteria were also found in the water. Six months after E. coli and total coliform bacteria were confirmed in Flint’s water supply, they were found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act when carcinogens were discovered. A year later, a state of emergency was declared, followed by a state probe, leading to involuntary manslaughter charges for five officials.
The crisis started after Flint, Michigan hired a new, temporary city manager who decided the way to buffer the water crisis was to transition their water source from Detroit, whose water came from Lake Huron, to the Flint River. The water in the Flint River water was extremely corrosive and caused the lead and heavy metals from the pipes to be dragged along with the water. Health officials do not believe that the children exposed to this water will be able to remove the lead from their systems during their lifetimes, which could cause neurological and other health effects. Following Flint, other cities in Michigan and Ohio, as well as many cities east of the Mississippi river, have been found to also have elevated lead levels.
ASCE Committee on America’s Infrastructure, a group of civil engineers across the country who assess data and reports from technical and industrial sectors, have recently developed modern water infrastructure criteria based on the following: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. They then develop an infrastructure report card grading scale: A-Exceptional, fit for the future; B-Good, adequate for now; C-Mediocre, requires attention; D-Poor, at risk; F-Failing/Critical, unfit for purpose. Based on this scale, the U.S. water infrastructure was handed a “D.”
Recent estimates have revealed approximately 2.1 trillion gallons of water are lost per year because of leaks in infrastructure. Although the congressional and presidential campaigns in 2016 saw a lot of promises to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, when the opportunity to address the issue in front of Congress arose, reforms did not pass. Water infrastructure is becoming increasingly fragile, in parallel with the state of the nation’s water quality. The cost to fix this issue is significant, and there is a weighty funding gap that will grow increasingly expensive, as the rate is 3-10 times more to fix a pipe after it fails.
This issue has been, quite literally, out of sight. Water is something that we assume will always be there because we haven’t experienced anything else. Every day we waste water, but when will this issue be resolved? Can the United States prevent a “day zero” crisis?