Out of Sight, Top of Mind
Investing in Asset Management Research to Stretch
Scarce Infrastructure Dollars
Last March, 20 minutes after the first
turnstile flipped at a newly-christened
Manhattan subway station, trains halted.
Nearby, a 140-year-old water main had burst
and sent torrents of water over the tracks,
nearly overshadowing the public celebration.
When a 36-inch pipe broke in a Baltimore
suburb the following month, leaking water
created a small river, closing schools and
disrupting the nation’s busiest rail line.
In some areas of rural Pennsylvania, drinking
water travels through lashed wooden planks.
To address the problem, the USEPA says
the nation’s drinking water systems should
invest $334.8 billion over the next 20 years.
Utilities and local governments agree, but
until recently, water infrastructure has often
fallen to the bottom of a municipal priority
list, “out of sight, out of mind.”
Breaks in the Los Angeles water system last
year flooded streets and forced residents to
evacuate their homes. One break created a
sinkhole that nearly swallowed a fire truck
responding to the scene, while another spat
mud 10 feet into the air.
Facing the Infrastructure Challenge
Now, a growing number of utilities are
confronting the problem. In 2002, Atlanta’s
leaders won public support to invest $3.9
billion to replace water infrastructure.
Also, the American Water Works Association
(AWWA) advocates for increasing rates so
that uti lities can afford to make needed
All over the country, our underground pipes
and drinking water distribution systems are in
disrepair, endangering homes and businesses,
disrupting traffic, and threatening public
health and the environment. “The utility business is expensive,” Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director for
government affairs at AWWA told Next
American City magazine. “It’s our obligation
to pay the full cost of water so we don’t
leave these worn out, run-down water
systems for the next generation.”
A Barely Passing Grade
According to the USEPA, an estimated
700 breaks take place each day, or nearly
250,000 breaks a year. In 2009, the American
Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s
water and wastewater systems the lowest
grade of any category: D minus.
And in 2009, the Obama administration
earmarked $6 billion for water
The culprits are age and lack of
maintenance: portions of some systems
are more than a century old, installed
when cities were young and growing.
Pennsylvania, for instance, still has some
200-year-old cast iron water mains in use.
While funding gets solved, engineers, utility
managers, and politicians have turned to
the Water Research Foundation for the
latest science on how to maintain and
repair buried infrastructure.