Warning Signs

It was an early Saturday morning at the end of August when a giant sinkhole engulfed an SUV and its driver. The sinkhole opened up at a northwest side Chicago intersection that I drive through every day on my way to work.

Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt; the driver was treated for minor injuries at a nearby hospital.

Upon closer inspection, Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM) officials said that a water main had broken, washing away the dirt supporting the street and causing the 12-ft-deep, 20-ft-wide sinkhole.

Before the accident occurred, neighbors had complained about water pressure suddenly dropping, but unfortunately, the DWM was unable to isolate the problem.

Although Chicago plans to increase its water mains replacement rate to 75 miles per year, the city has 4,200 miles of water mains—600-plus of which are more than 100 years old. Aging pipe infrastructure in Chicago alone results in 24 million gal of drinking water lost to leaks per day. Many suburbs have similar infrastructure that adds to even greater losses.

Chicago is not alone. In many parts of the country, water infrastructure is reaching a breaking point. Every day, an average of 700 water mains burst, while leaking pipes waste an estimated 7 billion gal of water, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Approximately 30% of pipes in systems delivering water to 100,000-plus people are between 40 and 80 years old, and about 10% are even older, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Simply put, the nation is plagued by a dilapidating infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the aging infrastructure threat comes in the wake of an economic decline, at a time when politicians are struggling to maintain state and federal budgets.

As federal and state support for drinking water systems funding continues to decrease, the industry will have no choice but to turn to users to bear the financial burden for infrastructure upgrades and replacement.

It’s been almost 10 years since the EPA published its assessment of the nation’s infrastructure needs, “The Drinking Water and Clean Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis.” It last estimated a $450-billion gap between historical funding trends and needs from 2000 to 2019. Since then, money remains tight and our infrastructure is another decade older and falling further behind.

Perhaps the out-of-sight-out-of-mind water infrastructure is finally rebelling as the warning signs—water main breaks and giant sinkholes—become more frequent and harder to ignore.

To see photos of the scene of the sinkhole, visit Water & Wastes Digest’s Facebook page. Just search “Water & Wastes Digest,” and be sure to “ like” our page for future updates from the editorial staff.

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