As prospects fade for bipartisan infrastructure legislation, a new report highlights the dire consequences to public health and safety that will result from continued deterioration of the nation’s underground water networks.
Beset by over 300,000 water main breaks each year, America’s underground water pipes are showing the effects of age and chronic corrosion. “The signs of distress surface daily as water mains break causing floods and service disruptions,” the study notes. “The loss of service is more than an inconvenience, causing significant economic and social disruptions.”
The report, “Water Main Breaks in the USA and Canada: A Comprehensive Study,” was authored by Dr. Steven Folkman of Utah State University. Folkman is an internationally-recognized expert in underground infrastructure testing of analysis. Utah State says the study has been downloaded in more than 70 countries.
Using water main breaks as the most objective measure of underground pipe failures, the study reviewed data submitted by 308 water utilities in the U.S. and Canada, serving over 52 million people with nearly 200,000 miles of pipes. In determining the performance and longevity of life-sustaining water pipes, the study focused on the four leading pipe materials still in service: cast iron and asbestos cement (both of which are no longer manufactured in North America) as well as polyvinyl chloride and ductile iron.
Corrosion is by far the biggest threat to underground water distribution systems, with most municipalities having a corrosion risk rating of moderate to high. It is a small wonder that between 2012, when the last Utah State report was issued, and 2018, water main breaks increased by 27 percent. According to the study, cast iron pipe, 92 percent of which is over 50 years old, in highly corrosive soil has over 20 times the break rate as one in a low-corrosion environment. Similarly, ductile iron pipe in a high-corrosion soil has over ten times the break rate as the same pipe in a low-corrosion soil. Of the pipes tested, only PVC pipe is not subject to corrosion.
For the first time, a direct relationship between corrosive soils and the corrosion of iron pipes has been established. The report found an alarming 46 percent rise in cast iron water main breaks over the past six years. As the deterioration of cast iron pipes continues to accelerate, the corrosion problems afflicting thinner-walled ductile iron pipes can be expected to grow exponentially, as they follow the same path as their older, thicker predecessors.
Because of their immunity to corrosion and improved installation techniques, PVC pipes have seen their break rates decrease by 10 percent since 2012. The break rate for corrosion-prone ductile-iron pipes, on the other hand, has increased by 13 percent over the past six years.
The seriousness of the corrosion problem was underscored in a July 19 report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general on the government’s inadequate response to the 2015 lead-contamination crisis involving Flint, Mich.’s drinking water. It found that failure by state officials to treat water with anti-corrosion chemicals allowed rust, iron, and lead to leach into Flint’s aging iron pipes and wind up in residents’ homes, exposing thousands of children to dangerous levels of lead.
A key finding of the study is that smaller municipal utilities are in even more dire straits, with twice the level of water main breaks as their larger counterparts. “With less revenues and resources, smaller municipalities will need to use the most cost-effective and durable pipe materials available to address pipe renewal and rehabilitation projects,” Folkman says in the press release accompanying the report.
Meanwhile, water bills are surging nationwide as utilities try to replace or repair corroded metallic pipes and overflowing sewer systems. Citing figures from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wall Street Journal on March 16 reported that in the past decade, consumers have seen their water bills rise 5.5 percent a year, more than three times the rate of inflation.
And those costs are projected to continue to rise. According to the Journal, the EPA estimates that the U.S. needs to spend $655 billion over the next 20 years to upgrade water and sewer systems.
Drastic measures are already being taken to cope with the mounting crisis. In California, a new law severely restricts residential water use. Ostensibly crafted to combat climate change, the statute establishes 55 gallons per capita daily as the standard for indoor residential water use until Jan. 1, 2025. But a state official charged with defending the law acknowledged that it is really a reflection of California’s crumbling infrastructure. “Right now, we lose up to 30 percent of urban water just to leaks in the system,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, told CBS-13 in Sacramento.
Instead of restricting people’s access to water, cash-strapped municipalities should follow the recommendations contained in a timely report by the Brookings Institution. It notes that many jurisdictions’ efforts to upgrade their underground water pipes are hampered by outdated procurement specifications that exclude more cost-effective and innovative technologies. Infrastructure bids for underground pipes, for example, should allow for financial comparisons between different materials, including life-cycle analysis of both construction and maintenance.
This is particularly important when dealing with the vexing problems caused by corrosive soils, Brookings notes. Failure to update thinking in pipe selection can lead local procurement officials to choose corrosion-prone pipes without a thorough financial evaluation of the long-term consequences of limiting their pipe material options.
In short, open competition that takes all expenses into account is the best way to solve America's infrastructure woes.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., is the author of “Fixing America’s Crumbling Underground Water Infrastructure,” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
This article originally ran in Washington Examiner.