The Likely Story Of A Leaking Water Main

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A water main crisis has been averted in Maryland, but the crumbling of water infrastructure is a common story. How did we get here? Melissa Block speaks with Greg DiLoreto, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

A water crisis has been averted in Maryland at a time when the heat index is creeping above 100 degrees. A crumbling water main that supplied part of Prince George's County, just outside Washington, D.C., was on the verge of bursting. Last night, it was shut down for repairs. Water authority officials were saying more than 100,000 people might have to go without water for as much as five days. Fortunately, crews found a solution, diverting water around the damaged main.

BLOCK: And this situation is far from unique. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that nationwide, 240,000 water mains break each year. So how did we get here?

Well, for that we turn to Greg DiLoreto in Portland, Oregon. He's the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Welcome to the program.

GREG DILORETO: Thank you.

BLOCK: Your group's recent report card on infrastructure gave drinking water a D. Is that mostly because of broken water mains, like we're talking about here in PG County?

DILORETO: Well, the D is a factor of a couple of things. One is the age and condition of our water systems, coupled with the level of investment that we are spending on these water systems. And what we show in the report that you mentioned is that we're not spending enough to keep them in good condition. We estimate we would need to spend an additional $9 billion a year through 2020 to put them in good condition.

In other words, we have about 35 percent of what is needed to adequately fund our water utilities systems.

BLOCK: So 9 billion more a year and that would just be on water. That wouldn't take into account any of the other parts of the infrastructure.

DILORETO: No, that would be the water and the water systems in the United States.

BLOCK: Well, how old are most of the pipes and water mains around the country.

DILORETO: Well, they vary around the United States. If you go to your older central cities, you know, such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore areas, much of our water system in many cases was put in at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, if you talk to the general manager of D.C. Water back there, he'll tell you that he has water mains that were put in place before the Civil War that they're still using.

Now that's a testament to those water utility workers back there. But, frankly, that does exceed what anyone would expect to be the life of a water main.

BLOCK: And what would you expect that life to be?

DILORETO: We typically estimate a water main's life to be somewhere around 75 years.

BLOCK: Paint us a picture if you can of what these water mains look like underground and what actually happens when there is a break. What's the scenario there?

DILORETO: Well, there could be a variety of different types of breaks. And so I give you - one of them could be a sheer break, where the pipe just actually separates from one another, breaks through the pipe. In my own utility, we had - due to corrosive soils - we had the entire bottom of the pipe eaten away. It could be a pinhole leak, you know, that's just a puncture of some sort in there, where the pipe wore away and it caused a leak to occur.

BLOCK: When you look at problems with water systems around the country and breaks in water mains and explosions, is part of the problem that people have intention of getting these things replaced but there are delays? I mean, it's not that they don't know about them, it's just that that's been held up.

DILORETO: Well, it's a combination of a variety of things. First off, as I mentioned, we're not adequately funding or investing in our water system. So the first dollar that every utility gets goes towards water quality and meeting the EPA regulations, because you want to know that you can drink water anywhere in this country, whether it's Anchorage, Alaska or Key West, Florida, and it's safe to drink. So every utility complies with the safe drinking water regulations.

What that means is that what we have left over is what we use for water pipe replacement and repairs and maintenance. And that's where we're coming up short.

BLOCK: Mr. DiLoreto, if you look around the country, are there particular regions where the infrastructure is in the worst shape?

DILORETO: No, not really. It seems to be universal to say that we need these investments everywhere in the United States. Over the last year and a half that I've been president and president-elect before that, I have gotten calls from newspapers around the country with waterline breaks asking the same question that you're asking: Is somewhere else worse than us. And it seems to be occurring everywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Nobody wants to be at the bottom.

(LAUGHTER)

DILORETO: I think that's true.

BLOCK: Mr. DiLoreto, thanks for your time.

DILORETO: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's Greg DiLoreto. He is the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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