Pain at the Pipe – Part 2: Consequences of Failing to Repair and Replace Our Buried Water Piping Infrastructure

People repair and replace many things throughout their lives including shoes, clothing, automobile tires, household appliances and the like and sometimes even hips, knees, lungs, and kidneys. Generally, the longer the useful life, the greater the reliability, and the more something is out of sight, the less prepared people become when major renovation or replacement becomes necessary.

This is precisely the case of the massive US buried water piping infrastructure. In this sense it is a victim of its reliability and durability. Many of the systems have exceeded their expected useful life by several decades and a few by more than a century. Numerous systems throughout the US are now nearing or have already reached their expected useful life and are in dire need of replacement or extensive repair.

The continuing postponement and failure to carry out the renovation or replacement will have extremely serious, perhaps even disastrous consequences. One has only to look at the water systems in lesser developed countries that have failed to keep up with repair and replacement to obtain a preview of the hardship, inconvenience, illness, and monetary and social costs associated with failing to replace and renovate this essential infrastructure in a timely manner. The following list cites the most prominent examples.

The Costs of Ignoring Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs

Social Costs Economic Costs
Waterborne disease rates1 rise due to poor drinking water quality Worker and student productivity decline
Diseases of sanitary significance increase from decreased sanitation in hospitals, restaurants, food processors, work environment, and households New business and industry stagnate due to insufficient water quantity or quality
Low water pressure and intermittent water service become more common inconveniences Widespread costs are encountered due to not having water when and where it is needed
Fire protection capability declines Insurance rates rise due to a decline in fire protection capability
Useful lives of water-using appliances decline Expenses associated with lost and unaccounted for water rise
Massive water leaks and associated repairs cause traffic and disruptions and driver and pedestrian risks (see embedded video example from Maryland, Dec., 23, 2008) Expenses associated with massive water leaks and associated property damage rise
Consumers must disinfect and store water at the household level Increase in monthly water utility fees due to escalating breaks in buried water lines

An ample available supply of clean water is indeed the lifeblood of our society. As costly as replacement and renovation of the buried water pipeline infrastructure will be, it will be far more expensive in numerous ways for US cities, towns, and communities to ignore this issue and continue to postpone the needed upkeep of possibly their most valuable asset.

Fred Reiff, P.E., is retired from the Pan American Health Organization, and lives in the Reno, Nevada area.

1Includes norovirus, cholera, typhoid fever, bacillary dysentery, giardiasis, infectious hepatitis, cryptosporidiosis, rotovirus