Solving Cities

U.S. city water infrastructure built before the Civil War

U.S. city water infrastructure built before the Civil War

Posting in Cities

Aging water infrastructure in U.S. cities needs upgrades.

Cities need infrastructure of all types to be successful. Transit and road networks to get people around, buildings for homes and offices, the energy grid to keep everything running. But the infrastructure that snakes beneath our cities, almost entirely out of sight, carries our most precious resource: water. But as important a resource as water is, city pipes, at least in the United States, are aging quickly and are in need of replacement.

A poignant example is from Washington, D.C. where north of the White House there are water pipes in the ground that were installed before the Civil War, according to George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water in Washington.

Hawkins was part of an excellent episode of NPR's Science Friday along with Martin Melosi, a professor of urban history. The two pointed out a number of statistics about city water infrastructure. Did you know:

  • Every day in the U.S., leaky pipes lose one in six gallons of clean water.
  • In D.C., on average, a pipe breaks every day.
  • The first modern city water system was built in Philadelphia in 1801
  • In D.C., the average water main is 78 years old.
  • EPA estimates that one-half of one percent of our water infrastructure is replaced each year.

In D.C., replacement rates of water infrastructure are higher than average, but money is tight everywhere, so smart modeling systems are used to determine the best investment. Hawkins says:

[W]e 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.

But water bills have traditionally been low because they don't take into account infrastructure upkeep and improvement. And increasing rates can be challenging for out-of-sight infrastructure.

Hawkins' tip for supporting your local water infrastructure? "[U]se public water whenever you can. It's a great investment."

Listen to the entire episode for more discussion on the mysterious infrastructure that brings us our most vital resource.

Photo: Flickr/csuspect

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure