We Only Notice When the Pipes Burst

Unlike roads and bridges, decaying water infrastructure is underground and out of sight. But as cities like Detroit have found out, it doesn’t pay to put off fixing the pipes and mains.

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Earlier this year, when the American Society of Civil Engineers released its quadrennial report card on the nation’s infrastructure, it gave a D to drinking water. The report estimated that there are 1 million miles of water mains in the country, some dating back to the mid-19th century and many in dire shape.

Unlike bridges, roads or many other types of infrastructure, the pipes that carry our water are underground and out of sight. It’s only when they break — which, according to the ASCE, happens about 240,000 times each year — that people become aware of the problem. This awareness often comes suddenly and disastrously. Homes and streets are flooded. Water pressure drops. The ensuing costs and disruptions can last long after the initial rupture.

In Detroit, decayed water infrastructure is just one of a host of municipal problems, eclipsed in public awareness by more dramatic dysfunctions in the public realm. In a city with streetlights that don’t function, life-threatening delays in police and fire response times, and a failing educational system, water might seem like an afterthought. But as an Associated Press story detailed this week, neglect of the city’s water system results in money going quite literally down the drain — money that the bankrupt city just doesn’t have.

As homes are abandoned in Detroit, looters regularly move in and strip them of metal to sell as scrap. Since the city is way behind on shutting off water to addresses where accounts are derelict, that often leaves water running, sometimes for years. It cascades into the streets and freezes. It undermines sidewalks. An unknowable amount goes to waste.

Detroit pays $400 to produce 1 million gallons of clean drinking water. That which ends up in the wastewater system then costs $800 per million gallons to treat. “The water is wasted on the front end, and second is we end up having to treat that water” all over again, William Wolfson, chief operating and compliance officer of Detroit’s water department, told the AP.

In some buildings, including a school that has been abandoned since 2007, the water runs for years. No one knows how much goes to waste, or how much it costs the city and consumers who have seen their rates go up. According to the AP, the water department’s debt load is $5.9 billion, a significant chunk of Detroit’s total estimated debt of $18 billion.

The vandalism of abandoned properties in Detroit is at a level rarely seen in other communities, but the problem of broken pipes and wasted water is hardly specific to that city. All over the country, urban water systems are degrading.

Over the summer I asked Greg Kail, communications director of the American Water Works Association, what he thought was the most pressing problem facing water systems in the U.S. I expected he might first think of the severe drought that much of the Midwest, Southwest and California have suffered through for years now. Instead, without hesitation, he pointed to the state of hard infrastructure carrying water and sewage.

“The top concern is our aging infrastructure and how we’re going to go about ensuring it’ll be around for future generations,” Kail said. “Over the next 25 years, it will cost U.S. communities more than a trillion dollars to repair water infrastructure. And by that I mean pipes in the ground. That’s a challenge for a lot of communities, especially small ones. Rural communities have many miles of pipes and not many people to spread the cost.”

In a shrinking, financially stressed city like Detroit, many long-buried urban challenges have blossomed into crises. The underfunding of municipal pension systems is one. The underfunding and neglect of the water system is another. Now, Detroit’s water is breaking through to the surface and becoming impossible to ignore. In much of the rest of the nation, the problem may still be invisible. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.

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Tags: infrastructureurban planningdetroitblightwatermarkdrought

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