Pain at the Pipe – Part 1: Why the US Should Respond to Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs

There is a complex, buried system of more than a million miles of pipe under our feet.  Through these pipes, clean drinking water flows to points of use, servicing millions of homes, businesses and institutions.  Unfortunately, this hidden but essential asset has reached its sunset years in many cities and towns.  In some places, such as Washington, D.C., certain components are more than 100 years old, and frequently the expected useful life of the pipes has been greatly exceeded.  It could be said that such facilities are “living on borrowed time”.

According to a report by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the underground drinking water infrastructure is in need of massive, costly renovation:  over the next 25 years, an estimated $1 trillion will be required.  This includes finding and fixing leaks, replacing aging and corroded pipe, and expanding water delivery to areas of new development.  The bulk of the cost will be met through local fees and doubling and even tripling consumer water bills, states AWWA.

Infrastructure renovation needs vary by region.  AWWA notes community growth will drive the need for new infrastructure in the South and West.  Older water systems in the Northeast and Midwest require miles of pipeline replacement among other improvements.  Small communities with the fewest residents to share the “pain at the pipe” will often bear the highest per capita costs.

As costly as it will be, America cannot afford to ignore this issue because its drinking water infrastructure is essential to:

  • Public health protection by supplying clean water for drinking, bathing and cooking and a system of sanitation to remove wastewater without contaminating the water supply or the environment.
  • Public safety through fire protection.
  • Economic activity that supports a high standard of living.

Leaks in the current infrastructure waste seven billion gallons of water every day, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  In addition, aging infrastructure can reduce drinking water quality.  Whereas EPA drinking water regulations over the past decades have caused an increase in the quality of water leaving the treatment plant, those improvements could be negated as water travels through a corroding pipeline.

Clean water is the lifeblood of society.  Let’s invest in the goal of keeping it flowing cleanly and efficiently for generations to come.

Buried No Longer:  Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Problems (American Water Works Association, 2012) can be found online at:

Next week:  Pain at the Pipe- Part 2:  The Consequences of Ignoring US Water Infrastructure Needs

Fred Reiff, P.E., is a retired official of the Pan American Health Organization.