MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
2.1 trillion gallons - that's an estimate of how much purified drinking water is lost each year across the country because of aging leaky pipes and water mains. Fixing that infrastructure won't be cheap for states, for communities or for residents. NPR's David Schaper tells us more from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Danielle Gallet is standing on a point jutting out into Lake Michigan, next to Chicago's huge Jardine Water Filtration plant. A billion gallons of Lake Michigan water is purified to drinking water standards here every day and then pumped to close to 5 million people in Chicago and 125 surrounding communities.
DANIELLE GALLET: Hundreds of thousands of miles of pipes to our showers, our dishwashers, our laundry machines and to our pitchers of water.
SCHAPER: Gallet is the water supply program manager for the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology. She says not all of that treated, potable water makes it through the system. In fact, quite a bit of it is lost.
GALLET: We do have a crumbling infrastructure issue. It is old.
SCHAPER: And that can lead to major water main breaks like this one.
GALLET: In suburban Skokie, where on a recent morning, this water utility crew was pumping out water that was gushing from a burst water pipe five feet beneath the busy thoroughfare.
PERRY GABUZZI: We replaced six feet of main here - ten inch main. There's a piece we took off if you want to take a look at it. See how pitted - see the golf ball size holes in it?
SCHAPER: And what's that from?
GABUZZI: That's just from age, right? It's from old age.
SCHAPER: Any idea how long this...
GABUZZI: How old this is?
GABUZZI: Ange, do you have any idea how old this main is?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Seventy years, probably.
SCHAPER: That's Perry Gabuzzi. He and his peers across the country have been busy replacing broken water pipes, many of them 70, 90 and even more than 100 years old. Again, Danielle Gallet.
GALLET: The infrastructure and the massive investment that our grandparents, great-grandparents, some of us our great-great-grandparents, put in is coming to the end of its useful life, and the bill has come due on our watch.
SCHAPER: Gallet's group and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recently studied just how much water is lost here. The agency's Tim Loftus says the Chicago area alone is losing 22 billion gallons of water a year.
TIM LOFTUS: We figured that that could fill the residential needs of about 700,000 people in a year. That's a big city. That's a year's worth of residential water use.
SCHAPER: Nationwide, the amount of water that is lost each year is estimated to top 2 trillion gallons. That's about 14 to 18 percent - 1-6th of the water we treat. And it's not just water that's going down the drain, but billions of dollars too because utilities can't charge customers for water that is lost before it gets to them. But fixing the nation's water systems isn't going to be cheap.
DAVID LAFRANCE: Our estimates are that this is a trillion-dollar program.
SCHAPER: That's David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association. And yes, he said a trillion dollars - with a T.
LAFRANCE: About half of that trillion dollars will be to replace existing infrastructure. The other half will be putting in the ground new infrastructure to serve population growth.
SCHAPER: Across the country, many communities are raising water rates - some in the double and triple digits - to begin addressing the problem. And several, including the entire states of California and Maine, are asking voters next week to approve massive bond initiatives to fund water infrastructure improvements. But some government spending watchdogs are skeptical.
STEVE ELLIS: Anytime somebody tells me that we have to spend more money, I'm going to look at who is telling me that and do they have an interest in it?
SCHAPER: Steve Ellis, of Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, says water utilities stand to gain from massive water infrastructure spending, as does the American Society of Civil Engineers, which coincidently gives the nation's water infrastructure a barely passing grade of D. Ellis says that doesn't mean spending on water infrastructure isn't needed, provided there's enough oversight and conservation. Meanwhile, the water pipes keep leaking. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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