Aging City Pipes In Need Of A Plumber's Touch A typical American family uses 400 gallons of water a day. But the pipes that ferry that water are bursting faster than they can be replaced. George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water, and environmental historian Martin Melosi discuss past and present issues with pumping water into cities.

Aging City Pipes In Need Of A Plumber's Touch

Aging City Pipes In Need Of A Plumber's Touch

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A typical American family uses 400 gallons of water a day. But the pipes that ferry that water are bursting faster than they can be replaced. George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water, and environmental historian Martin Melosi discuss past and present issues with pumping water into cities.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. We're in the midst of the worst drought in over 50 years. Water tables are dropping faster than they can be replenished, and at the same time an op-ed in the New York Times today says that the United States is estimated to lose about one in six gallons, one in six gallons of clean water every day due to leaky pipes in the ground.

That's because in many places the plumbing systems we depend on to get our water are at least 100 years old, and in Washington, D.C., for example, some pipes date back to the Civil War. Other towns still have pipes made of wood. Can you even believe that?

And not surprisingly, those aging pipes are breaking apart. In D.C., a pipe breaks an average of once a day. So how are we going to fix them? Is it a matter of just replacing them? Is it more complicated than that? And why have we stuck with such old plumbing for so long?

Joining me to talk more about that are my guests. George Hawkins is the general manager for D.C. Water, based in Washington, D.C. He joins us today from KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Hawkins.

GEORGE HAWKINS: Great to be here.

LICHTMAN: And Martin Melosi is the author of "Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America's Cities." He's also a history professor at the University of Houston, and he joins us today from KUHF in Houston. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Melosi.


LICHTMAN: George Hawkins, give me a thumbnail sketch of your day.

HAWKINS: Wow, it's hard to thumbnail any particular day because it changes so much. I mean, we run a huge system. We take the water off the Potomac, deliver it to every person who works, who lives, who comes and visits Washington, D.C. And then once someone has used it, it comes back to us, we cleanse it, and we put it back to the Potomac from where it came. So that cycle is enormous.

And the size of the system that's needed and the importance of it to every job, to every life, is just extraordinary, and we have to deliver that every second of every day. So each day is a challenge. It's a great challenge to make sure we can continue delivering service, cleanse it and then get it back to the river where it came from.

LICHTMAN: Sounds stressful to me.

HAWKINS: It's a great job. I mean, I'm surrounded by people - it's the ultimate problem-solvers because every day there's something that happens, there's some unforeseen event. The city is very busy. There's construction being done all over. There's new service connections being put in.

We serve millions of people. Any customer base that big - and it's vital to them. It's one of the great realities of this industry, which is - some people ask me, Mr. Hawkins, how many jobs do you support, and I always say: all of them. Every building, every home, every dwelling, every place...

LICHTMAN: Every life, right?

HAWKINS: Every life relies on what we do, and yet most people don't think about it very much, where the water comes from when they turn on the spigot or where it goes once it goes down the drain. But the systems out there in every city, and not just cities but all across the country that deliver these, are massive, and they're complicated, and they're complex and they're evolving.

And we're using computer and predictive modeling and sonar and all sorts of things to advance the industry. But on a daily basis, it is really problem-solvers banding together to deliver something that we know matters.

LICHTMAN: Martin Melosi, you've studied the history of American water systems. When did our modern plumbing first get started?

MELOSI: Well, the modern city water system, and that is - that leads up to the house, for most cities and towns in the United States was in the 1830s and beyond. The first one was in Philadelphia in 1801 and - in the United States, and it really actually served as a model all over the world for a long, long time.

But most of the systems that were city-wide, at least, began about 1830 and forward from there.

LICHTMAN: And what was life like back then? I mean, what did people have in mind when these systems were being built?

MELOSI: Well, it's extraordinary that they were built. It's extraordinary that they were built when they were built because our knowledge of health and disease vectors was so primitive that they really didn't understand how water could carry disease or any kind of other potential pollution.

So essentially at that particular era, the belief was if the water looked dirty or smelled bad or tasted bad, that you might need to find another source. And they didn't know anything about bacteriology until the 1880s at the earliest. So these early systems essentially were transportation networks.

They went from a source to a dam or a pumping facility and then down to the marketplace, and that alone was extraordinary, but there was no filtration systems at that time, no treatment of the water or whatever.

So in reality, the systems that we have today kind of began in an era before we understood bacteriology. So what came after that, of course, is a modification of those initial systems.

LICHTMAN: That's kind of amazing that they could be modified at all, given - you know, and work as well as they do.

MELOSI: Yeah, oh, it's extraordinary. I mean, the engineering for what was in place in the 19th century was great. Of course they were also working with materials, some of which they abandoned, like lead pipes, for obvious reasons, and wood that was used - I think I heard in your introductory promo, wooden pipes were used in some places in the American West for a long, long time.

A lot of conduits were made out of redwood. They lasted a long time and delivered water systems(ph). So given the limits of the technologies and the newness of designing these systems, it's extraordinary that they've lasted or were able to be modified to last for as long as they have.

LICHTMAN: If you want to get in on the conversation, our number is 1-800-989-TALK, that's 1-800-989-8255, if you have a question or a comment about urban or rural water infrastructure. So George Hawkins, I mean, they work really well, but it sounds like you guys have to deal with leaks all the time. What's - how often do you have a leak in D.C.?

HAWKINS: Well, some of these - most systems have some level of leakage at all times. The reality of cities across the country is that most of these systems, as you've heard, starting in the 1830s, but a lot of the big systems were put in at the end - the turn of the last century, 1890s, 1900, 1910, as the big cities were being built.

And for a long period of time, there wasn't - the immediate system was put in, it was still relatively new, working fine. There's a long life to a lot of these systems. And so a replacement cost schedule was not built into what our customers are used to paying for.

And what's happened in Washington, D.C., and a lot of other cities - New York and Boston and all over the country - is that that bill has now come due. We have older pipes in the ground. As you mentioned, we have water pipes north of the White House that were put in the ground before the Civil War.

And the simple fact of the matter is is that they're breaking. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about a half of one percent, one-half of one percent of this infrastructure is being replaced in any given year. And Washington, D.C., up until three years ago, it was a third of one percent. Think about that. That's a 300-year replacement cycle on a resource that's already - an average age of a water main in Washington, D.C. is 78 years, that's average.

So that's - it's just - we knew that wasn't sustainable. So we have tripled our replacement rate now to one percent, which may sound small, but still that's way ahead of the national average. And what we're using is predictive modeling to try to demonstrate which are the pipes we need to replace first.

The reality is, however, that we've got far more to catch up on and fix than we can fix at any one moment. So we're trying to be very smart where we spend the money, but we do have old pipes. They leak. We lose a lot of drinking water that's been treated very carefully just out of the fact of older systems.

And when you raise the rates to cover these capital replacement costs - this is not maintenance cost, this is to fundamentally replace the system - a lot of our rate-payers aren't used to that cost. And that's the challenge we face, is persuading customers who don't really think about the size and scale of the systems that are delivering this water and then taking it back, to let them know what we're doing, why it matters to them and why we think that the investment into this infrastructure is simply one of the best investments that any society can make.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I mean I think I read that in places in Europe, water costs twice as much. And I've heard experts say that we just pay way too little for this commodity that we need, that we depend on. Do you see a change on the horizon in terms of how much we pay for water?

HAWKINS: Yes, and almost every jurisdiction in the country has been going through pretty significant rate increases off of a relatively low base. We're very sensitive because since I've been at the helm of D.C. Water, which is three years now, and I've been on the board prior to coming in as general manager, but just in the three years I've been here, water rates have been raised almost - water and sewer rates, it's a combined bill - have been raised almost 50 percent.

And while that dollar figure is still quite less than a cable bill or a power bill or - and this is not - this is a necessity, so this is something we're paying for. We're very sensitive. And across the country we're sensitive that a lot of our customers don't have a lot of extra money.

So even if it's a low price, if you're on a fixed budget, or you're low-income, any increase in this bill - because you have to pay it, this is not an option - is very tough. And that's the challenge that we face in this industry. In Washington, D.C. we've had some challenges on that front. We have a very aggressive program to help our low-income neighbors, and we are doing everything we can to explain to our customers what we're doing and why we're doing it.

And again, as I said, I think it's the most important investment in public health that any place can make, is to make sure that the drinking water that comes into a home or a dwelling or a business is clean and safe and ready to go, and that once it comes down the drain, we clean it again before it goes back out to the environment because every living organism relies on having this clean and plentiful resource.

LICHTMAN: It seems like so much of your job is sort of communications. I mean...

HAWKINS: It's a lot a part of the job. I mean, I'm surrounded by fantastic engineers. I mean, it's - we call it Team Blue at D.C. Water. It's some of the best people I've ever worked with because they know - true environmentalists in almost any city and for those of you listening out there, I hope you get to know a little bit about your local water or sewer department, these really are true environmentalists. They're in this job because they believe in the service they're delivering and know what - how it matters.

The question is, do the people we serve know how it matters? That's the big issue to us, and that's why today it really does go back to the hardcore engineering questions. We can do almost anything if we have the funding. The question on funding is, do we have the support of the populace that we serve, and do they understand the size and scale? If you've ever visited the blue - New York City has 14 treatment plants that treat wastewater. In Washington, D.C., the Blue Plains plant is 155 acres. It's gigantic. People who come and visit it are awe inspired by the scale of the technology and the engineering that goes into cleaning about 300 million gallons of water every day. So it goes back to the Potomac cleaner often than the Potomac River itself.

And when people see that, they're more tend - they tend more to support what - the investment that's needed. But most folks haven't thought about it before, and an increase in the bill that they have to pay is a shock and a challenge, and we understand that.

LICHTMAN: Martin Melosi, why do we use treated water on our lawns or to wash our cars?

MELOSI: Well, that's not true all over the world. I mean, many places in Europe have dual systems, one for gray water and one for potable water. And we haven't developed that in the United States, I think, largely because at the heart of developing the systems is not only the technology as we've been talking about but the politics and the economics of these systems. And certainly, when they went in in the 19th century and today, all of that has to be taken to account. So developing a dual system that would have to come later, as I said, an understanding of purity was something that had to evolve into the 20th century.

So the thought of having a dual line at that particular moment didn't make a lot of sense because the decision was to try to access pure water at a time when you're not treating it, when you're not filtering it. So by the time you are transforming these systems into their modern form, you're not going to really have a tradition of dual water, and therefore all the water that we would utilize or most of it at least that comes from kind of centralized water facilities are - is going to be treated.

So I think you have the historic momentum that plays a particularly strong role in that decision. There's now going on some questioning in those places that have dual systems in terms of their economy, in terms of their values, so...

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MELOSI: cuts both ways.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman talking with George Hawkins and Martin Melosi. So when you say that, does that mean that they may not provide as much bang for their buck, Martin Melosi?

MELOSI: Well, again, it comes down to considering what one's needs are, and in some places, I had some conversations with some city planners recently about what was going in parts of France, that they're finding that the use for the gray water lines were diminishing in terms of being accessed. And the question is, are they fundamentally necessary to continue that technology if the market is not going to be there. And also, Western Europe has gone through certainly a lot more than the United States and some other parts of the world, the privatization of its water-delivery systems.

And when you get into a question of profit-taking in terms of distributing water, then questions of duel systems, I think, really get scrutinized economically.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Dean(ph) in Fairfax, Virginia, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DEAN: Hello. Thank you very much. I live in Fairfax, and so I enjoy the sweetness, I guess, of the Fairfax County public water system. But I grew up in Michigan many years ago with well water. And I've talked to friends about it, and it always makes them cringe just a little bit that they don't think it's safe. And I just wanted to hear some comments about the educated panel as to their feelings of well water and septic system, stuff like that. It seems to be still widespread in the country, is it not?

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm. We've got just about a couple of minutes left. Martin or George, any thoughts on that?

MELOSI: Well...


MELOSI: Go ahead, George.

HAWKINS: Go ahead, Martin. Go ahead, Martin.


MELOSI: Well water was in great demand, nonpoint pollution problems, kind of groundwater pollution have played an effect in parts of the country where you have intense development. And so the assumption that well water is going to be, you know, going to be purer than surface-water has taken kind of a beating in the last several years. And certainly, something like well water may be easier to utilize in an area that doesn't have a huge population center, something that - there are limits to how much a population can be served by wells.

LICHTMAN: But I wonder if there - oh, go ahead. Go ahead, George.

HAWKINS: Yeah. I've spent a lot of my career working in areas that are on well and septic, and it's very hard to make up a blanket statement about well water because a lot of it is very site specific. And in one town that I lived in, there was historic arsenic not from any industrial contamination. It's just in the soils in that area. The ground is acting, the biological processes in the ground, very similar to the water that ends up in a well in the manner in which we try to replicate in a concrete version of a water treatment plant.

Well water can be very safe. It's relatively easy to test to make sure that somebody knows. The challenges on the other end is the septic systems because that's using an outdoor system where the waste goes into essentially an onsite treatment plant, and then the question of how it's designed, how close the water table is, how small is the building lot, so how close is that septic system to other units and can the infiltration of the ground surrounding it work properly. That's been a big challenge in a lot of areas that have relied on well and septic in making sure that the criteria for development is safe.

On the drinking water side, I think both systems can work great. And your question before about recycled water or reusing gray water, what we're seeing a lot of in Washington, D.C., is...

LICHTMAN: Wait. Let me interrupt you because we have to go to a break.

HAWKINS: Oh, sure. Sure.

LICHTMAN: But I want to hear more about that when we come back. We're talking with George Hawkins, the general manager for D.C. Water, and Martin Melosi, the author of "Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America's Cities" and professor of history at the University of Houston. Much more about plugging up those leaky pipes when we come back. Stay with us. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. We're talking this hour about the leaky pipes that deliver your water and how we might tackle this extra large plumbing problem with my guests, George Hawkins, he's the general manage for D.C. Water, and Martin Melosi, the author of "Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America's Cities" and a professor at the University of Houston. So when we left off, George, I had just interrupt you - interrupted you about gray water.

HAWKINS: Get so excited about this stuff. Two thoughts that have been spurred by the conversation: One was on gray water and the other was delighted by the caller from Fairfax, which is the county right across the Potomac from us, when he said the sweet taste of Fairfax public water. One of the best things that a person can do to protect the environment is just use their public water system. The amount of environmental consequence that goes into the plastic bottled water industry, which is thousand times more expensive than the drinking water that comes out of your tap, which is more tested and more regulated, is just crazy. So fill up your - in Washington, D.C., we're part of TapIt. You can get on your phone, walk around, refill your bottles, and use public water whenever you can. It's a great investment.

On the reuse of water, what we're seeing in D.C. is the systems as explained, sort of the big systems to take water that we've treated or partially treated water and sending it back for certain uses is too expensive. But what's happening a lot now is that when new developments go up or even retrofitting older developments, they're containing rainwater onsite, doing a rudimentary level of treatment to make sure it's not dangerous, and then using it for trees and shrubbery, sort of the green development that's right on the site. It has so many multiple benefits. And they don't have to use drinking water to make sure that the trees that are growing out on the sidewalk or on green roofs or in the bioswales that are being put in has to be drinking water. It can be water that's rainfall that has been captured onsite. That means it's not coming into the sewer systems, so we have to handle it. And that's exciting. That's a site-by-site, landowner-by-landowner, house-by-house change that a person can do. It greens their house. It's good for the environment. It really - and it also is a very efficient use of rainwater rather than to have to pay for drinking water to water this greenery that can be all around us.

LICHTMAN: Let's talk about rainwater a little bit. What, you know, we hear about this in New York all the time that the sewers overflow when you have a big storm. Is there anything to do about that?

HAWKINS: There is. And New York has a very good - Carter Strickland, who runs the Department of Environmental Protection in New York, is great on this. The issue is that in the older cities in the country, there are 750 of them, the sewer pipes that is out of the street takes the sewage from dwellings and buildings, also takes the storm flow that goes right into a storm drain. And as you can imagine, these sewer pipes are huge, and they're not huge because of this sewage. That is easily held within the pipe. But then a rainstorm hits, and the rain washes down the street, goes into the storm drain and goes to the same pipe. Now you can imagine no matter how big that pipe is, if the storm is big enough, it's going to fill up the pipe with rainwater. And now the pipe is full, and so that overflow has to go somewhere.

And what - the way these cities were designed is called combined sewer systems. And combined sewer overflow takes a - this mix of sewage and rainwater. And rainwater is not real clean either. It's taking everything off the street and the oil and grease and little bits of metals and leaves and dog feces and the whole works. And that mixture is going directly to rivers untreated. And so what cities across the country are implementing are strategies to handle it. In Washington, D.C., we are building absolutely gigantic underground tunnels. They are bigger than Metro tunnels or the subway tunnels, and all that overflow or most of it will go down to these tunnels rather than overflow to the rivers.

But a second option, which is very exciting - New York is working on this. Philadelphia is groundbreaking, in Washington, D.C., we're seeking to do it as well, and Cleveland, St. Louis, there's cities all around the country - is to capture that rainwater onsite like I just mentioned. If the rainwater is captured onsite and it's fuelling and providing water for street trees and green roofs and bioswale, greenery all around us, that's rainwater that's not going into that sewer line. And if we can capture enough water to green our city, which has air quality benefits, heat island benefits, all sorts of it - there's job creation in building these things - that's rainwater that doesn't go into the sewer, causing the overflows. That's the latest trend, and I think it's a very promising one to really make cities even more livable than they are now.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Al in Minneapolis. You have a question or a comment?

AL: Yeah, a couple of really quick comments. First of all, it seems very inefficient, but at least for a lot of us in the Upper Midwest, a lot of us get our water from wells, very, very deep wells, so if there is leakage up here, it's going to probably end up back in the water table again. But I remember seeing a show - if you could comment on it - I saw a show not too long ago about New York gets their water from upstate a bit. And it was just amazing there were towns that were sinking because the pipes were leaking so bad and such. Can you describe what's going on in upper New York to feed New York City with all the water gets and how things are degrading and what they're planning to do about it?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, good question. Martin Melosi, any comment?

MELOSI: Well, I mean, New York City has been drawing water from the state of New York since the 19th century. The Croton Aqueduct was one of the great engineering feats of the century. And then New York has also been drawing from the Catskills. A number of large cities will tap sources outside of their jurisdiction. And this creates, you know, an opportunity for the cities, but it also creates problems for the parts of the state or area that - where water is being drawn, probably notoriously in Los Angeles, when you look at the history of what happened there in the early 20th century in terms of going to the center of the state of California and seeking water.

But these are issues that raise the question of whether these are local issues or regional ones. And I think what we're finding out is the more we've learned about watershed development and so forth, the more we realize that there are complex watershed issues not simply associated with the use of water in a particular city.

LICHTMAN: You know, this is what strikes me as so complicated about this issue, that it spans sort of everything: technology, land management, federal-versus-state oversight, versus the cities. Who's responsible, at the end of the day?

HAWKINS: This is George. And I would say there's a great story, as well, in parallel about the New York water system, because it really is paralleling this question of whether we contain rain water on site using these natural features as we build the world around us.

New York, to protect the water supply, has gone up into the Catskills, and it's actually spending money to preserve land that otherwise might be developed. You could spend that money and build concrete reservoir, big reservoir systems. And instead, they're trying to protect the natural resource right up in the headlands that draws the water into New York. There are questions about: Is the water being withdrawn too quickly? It has to be managed. But it's a great story of how you protect the environment to protect your water quality, rather than just build concrete structures or physical structures, what they've done in New York.

The regulatory system in the country is run by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. There are - is a natural Clean Water Act. It's one of the bellwether laws of the land. But there's an interlacing set of laws in almost every level, as you imagine. And you're very right that this connects to everything: every job, every home, every living organism. And it's the sort of service that most people don't think about till it's not there. And then it's the most important thing in their day. That's one of the realities of the job.


HAWKINS: But there's regulations at every level. But what you really do get is focus from everybody involved. No - the importance of this delivery is so significant. There is a regulatory structure on the national level. But some of the biggest and hardest questions were just referenced, which is: Can you shift water from one area to another? And what consequence does it have to the ecology in one place to another? Because it has gotten more broad than it can be handled in any local jurisdiction, and that is always a challenge for any kind of issue.

LICHTMAN: Martin Melosi - no, go ahead. Go ahead.

MELOSI: No. I was just going to say that, to add on what George is saying, that the complexity of the policies, the situation is so different in different parts of the country, and even within the same parts of the country. We're talking about the arid West and the amount of rainfall and access to certain kind of water supplies. So, you know, a one-size-fits-all policy is really, really difficult to apply. And even though many of the federal guidelines, certainly the Clean Water Act, was very significant on a national level, it does essentially - pardon the pun - you know, trickle down to the states and below to come up with what might be uniquely necessary in order to accomplish the task at hand.

So like a lot of city services, water being the most prominent, this tremendous variety in terms of difference in variables creates the real complexity in designing a policy historically, and certainly in the modern world.

LICHTMAN: We have just about a minute left. But before we go, Martin Melosi, how is the drought affecting this conversation or affecting the challenges that people are facing across the country for water?

MELOSI: Well, I think the scale is something that is kind of confounding. Living in Texas, we went through a substantial drought last summer in east Texas, and a place that was, you know, normally considered very water-rich. And so, in some respects, there's this - a certain amount of denial going on that there needs to be some kind of anticipatory planning in our state, because our state government has not really engaged that issue very effectively in the last several years. And I think the scale issues raise some questions about, you know, what long-term effects the drought may have beyond the kind of immediate effect on crops and so forth.

And I suspect that what's necessary is going to be some kind of more collective discussion rather than regional or local discussions, because these - this particular drought just cuts across so many borders, that it's extraordinary.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Well, we've run out of time. Thank you both for joining me today.

HAWKINS: Glad to be here.

MELOSI: Thanks a lot.

LICHTMAN: George Hawkins is the general manager for D.C. Water in Washington, D.C., and Martin Melosi is the author of "Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America's Cities," and a professor of history at the University of Houston in Texas.

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