The nation’s crumbling infrastructure was made strikingly obvious by a recent string of collapsing bridges and train derailments. A newly released report highlights a less visible but equally urgent time bomb:deteriorating drinking water systems. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $384 billion over the next 17 years is needed to repair and replace thousands of miles of pipes, thousands of water treatment plants, storage tanks, and water distribution systems. Without this investment, millions of Americans will lose the clean drinking water we currently take for granted.
Most of the drinking water infrastructure in the nation is 50 to 100 years old, and the risk of contamination grows as pipes age and break down further. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water are lost every day because of leaky pipes. In order to address this growing problem, every state needed at least $1 billion to fix their drinking water infrastructure. Most require between $3 and $10 billion, while nine states need more than $10 billion.
California, already struggling with severe water shortages that will only worsen with climate change, needs the most rehabilitation. Repairing and updating California’s drinking water system will cost at least $44.5 billion, up from 2007′s estimate of $44.2 billion. That’s $10 billion more than Texas and $22 billion more than New York.
The report also noted that virtually no states are planning for climate change’s impact on drinking water. Forward-thinking projects focusing on conservation and water efficiency are few and far between. Just 164 climate readiness projects have been planned in 44 of the nation’s 73,400 water systems.
The effects of decrepit water infrastructure are already manifesting themselves. For instance, the city of Baltimore, where more than 95 percent of the water mains have been in use for 65 years without inspection, endures about a thousand water main breaks every year, flooding streets and destroying properties. Many of the water mains have been in service for over a century. Because of the deteriorated system, the city loses about 20 percent of its finished water revenue each day — enough water to fill Baltimore’s World Trade Center every day.
At the same time, the price of water is exploding across the country at a far faster rate than other utilities. This is largely because treating water has become more expensive. And if water quality continues to decline, more treatment, more chemicals, and more energy will be needed to make it clean enough for drinking, making prices soar.
Though the drinking water situation is rapidly reaching crisis mode, Congress regularly fails to provide the necessary funding. The EPA estimates that between 2000 and 2019, funding to address water infrastructure needs will likely fall short by as much as $263 billion, or even more over the next 20 years as demand for water increases.