Water pipe and storage tanks can’t last forever and when they fail, neighborhoods and downstream communities can pay dearly.
That’s hardly news. Pipe of all types and tanks of all ranks have been falling short of expectations ever since they were born to suffer the ravages of time, weather, neglect and bad luck. Recent events, however, underscore water’s value and vulnerability to an even greater extent. Just ask the communities where bone-chilling temperatures have wreaked Arctic havoc on water mains over the last few weeks and the residents of Charleston, W.V., who live and drink downstream of chemical facilities.
Winter is the cruelest season when it comes to water pipe. A 10-degree change in air or water temperature can cause pipe to contract or expand, making it fragile and vulnerable to breaks (NYC-OEM). All around the country, local water pipe is breaking left and right. The pace reached a fever pitch during the recent “Polar Vortex” as described in a Jan. 13, 2014, blog by the Value of Water Coalition , and the water main breaks and leaks will contribute to the 2.1 trillion gal of water that is lost annually in the U.S.
DC Water averages between 400 and 500 water main breaks per year, with most occurring in the winter months, and according to the Value of Water Coalition, Des Moines Water Works in Iowa says half of all of its water main breaks for the year happen between December and February.
Most recently, a huge water main break occurred in Greenwich Village, flooding Lower Manhattan streets, which forced road closures and caused mass transportation disruptions. The 36-in. cast iron main, which dates back to before 1900, broke just after midnight on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2014, suspending water service to surrounding buildings for at least another day or two.
As most of the nation and much of the world knows, West Virginia’s capital region lost virtually all use of its public water supplies for five days when an upstream storage tank for coal processing chemicals developed a leak on Jan. 9, 2014. The substance, MCHM, flowed downstream 1.5 miles into the intake system for the area’s drinking water treatment and distribution system serving 300,000 people. Residents said the water smelled like “black licorice.” Homes, businesses and institutions, including airport facilities, were grounded to a halt.
At some point, funders, regulators and planners are going to be able to connect the dots, as the number of water main breaks nationally continues to rise and the population experiencing firsthand failures of our buried infrastructure continues to expand. That should mean more attention to smarter pipe, better maintenance, greater research and, as AWWA’s “Buried No Longer” report  outlined, investment in replacing pipe at the end of its service lives so that systems are expanded to serve growing populations. “The needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years.”
This attention on pipe and weather should manifest itself in many important forums. One that people often forget is climate change and water adaptation. Headlines and research dollars often gravitate toward sea level rise and glacier melts. Preparedness and resilience, however, includes not just the water and wastewater treatment plants, but their lifelines, i.e., the 1 million miles of pipe that run underground.
To what extent are the national “needs surveys” mandated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act taking into account the changing conditions in climate and weather? This has been a struggle in the past. It deserves continued attention.
Legislators in Congress, West Virginia, and other states will debate regulatory gaps and identify possible culprits in the wake of the Charleston spill. I’m hoping it will lead to a healthy, informed debate over spill prevention, control, and countermeasure regulations and local emergency response planning, and also the deficiencies and realities of chemical screening programs—all in the name of “source water protection.” For some, this will include discussion of Clean Water Act watershed protection tools, such as storm water permitting and reporting, and also on local land use planning and regulation. For others, though, it includes underfunded program within the world of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. It means monitoring and emergency response planning, locally and regionally, in the geographic area affecting water sources of municipal systems. If the storage tanks in Charleston were only 15 ft from the Elk River, did that prompt any heightened scrutiny in the emergency planning and response sector?
“Breaking Bad” may be an award-winning TV drama but it’s hardly a winning strategy for water systems. Communities downstream of storage tanks and communities with aging pipe systems need some “breaks” from the bad news during these cold days. The best ounce of prevention: capital investment, asset management and source water protection. The best strategy to gain ounces and pounds for prevention: greater public awareness on the value of water, and the need to invest money and people to make it real and not simply blather in blogs.Ben Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., committed to uniting people and policies for water sustainability throughout the country. Grumbles has a long career in water and environmental policy, serving the public and teaching law students and environmental professionals, over the past 25 years. He can be reached at [email protected] .