Getting Our Heads in the Sewer

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image by Mark Todd /

The United States’ water system is literally crumbling beneath our feet. Most of the buried pipes that bring Americans drinking water and drain away waste are more than 100 years old. As pipes start to crack and leak, dangerous contaminants can seep into public water. An estimated 250,000 water mains break every year, according to Next American City (Fall 2009), and replacing that infrastructure is astronomically expensive and disruptive.

Part of the problem is that water experts don’t know where the bad pipes are. Authorities didn’t keep sufficient records when they were installing the pipes, and now most cities lack the technology to monitor the infrastructure. Experts from Virginia Tech University are working to map municipal water systems and predict failures, but for now, Next American City reports, the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.

Finding the money to pay for new pipes will be tricky. The American Water Works Association is pushing for “full-cost pricing,” which would force water users to pay for overdue infrastructure updates. The organization also wants a “water infrastructure bank” that would allow states to borrow money from the federal treasury at low interest rates to pay for new water projects. Both ideas are designed to save state budgets while keeping the clean water flowing.

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