From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published March 19, 2013 04:10 PM

US Drinking Water: D+!

How safe is our drinking water? The water system especially in our older cities has been around for a long time being patched and repaired. The American Society of Civil Engineers and its members are committed to protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public, and as such, are equally committed to improving the nation’s public infrastructure. To achieve that goal, they have recently issued a Report Card on the condition and performance of the nation’s infrastructure. They are experts at how it is done and they give the American system a D+! At the dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. The quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.


Drinking water or potable water is water safe enough to be consumed by humans or used with low risk of immediate or long term harm. In most developed countries, the water supplied to households, commerce and industry meets drinking water standards, even though only a very small proportion is actually consumed or used in food preparation. Typical uses (for other than potable purposes) include toilet flushing, washing and landscape irrigation.

Drinking water quality in the United States affects approximately 314,569,000 people in some way or another. In some places in the United States, people may be concerned about pollutants.

Nearly 170,000 public drinking water systems are located across the United States. Of these, 54,000 are community water systems that collectively serve more than 264 million people.

Although new pipes are being added to expand service areas, drinking-water systems degrade over time, with the useful life of component parts ranging from 15 to 95 years. Especially in the country’s older cities, much of the drinking water infrastructure is at the far older end of its useful life and in need of replacement.

Failures in drinking water infrastructure can result in water disruptions, impediments to emergency response, and damage to other types of infrastructure. 

In 2012, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) concluded that the aggregate replacement value for more than one million miles of pipes was approximately $2.1 trillion if all pipes were to be replaced at once. Since not all pipes need to be replaced immediately, it is estimated that the most urgent investments could be spread over 25 years at a cost of approximately $1 trillion.  This is one large bill!

All is not gloom and doom.  Some places are being proactive.  The Chicago Department of Water Management delivers almost one billion gallons of fresh water to the residents of Chicago and 125 suburban communities every day. The city has replaced about 30 miles of water mains a year in recent years. That pace is not nearly quick enough, given that Chicago put down about 75 miles of mains a year between 1890 and 1920, and that those pipes were not expected to serve for more than a century. In 2012, the city embarked on a 10-year plan to replace 900 miles of century-old drinking water pipes. 

What is the long term?  The system needs to be upgraded and there will be large capital costs.  Water bills will have to rise to compensate.

For further information see Report Card.

Drinking Water image via Wikipedia.

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