WASHINGTON – If City Water Tunnel No. 2 breaks down, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens will be without running water for at least three months. Five million people would be affected.
City Water Tunnel No. 2 is 80 years old.
“I would say some engineers would estimate the lifespan of these systems from 80 to 100 years,” said Kevin Bone, director of the Institute for Sustainable Design at Cooper Union in New York. “And they have never done a thorough inspection since the day the tunnel was brought on line.”
As early as 1954 the city acknowledged that Tunnel Nos. 1 (built in 1917) and 2 needed to be overhauled. But construction did not begin until 1970, and progress ground along slowly for several decades. The project has cost over $6 billion and has claimed the lives of 24 workers.
City Water Tunnel No. 1 was finally taken out of service in October 2013, over 95 years after it went into service. But there will be no immediate relief for Tunnel No. 2, as the administration of Bill de Blasio has shifted money away from the project.
The problems plaguing construction in New York – costs, lack of government funding, a system decades out of date – is emblematic of a lot of the country’s water infrastructure.
“You listen day in and day out to the different political parties arguing over how to cut taxes,” Bone said. “As long as we gut taxes, we’re hurting our infrastructure. This is an investment in our future.”
And the country is falling behind. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water infrastructure a D grade and started its report by saying, “At the dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”
The report predicted that by 2020, the gap between annual spending and needs will reach $84.4 billion.
“With older cities, you have distribution systems that were put in place 100, 150 years ago,” said Brian Pallasch, who oversees infrastructure initiatives for the ASCE. “These systems are reaching the end of their useful lives, and the fact is we can barely replace the pipes fast enough.”
The ASCE gave low grades to much of the country’s infrastructure. But Pallasch and other civil engineers said water is perhaps the most essential of all.
“With some infrastructure, like roads, you can see progress being made,” said Tom Lindberg of DC Water, which oversees the water and sewer system that serves the nation’s capital. “With the pipes, if we do our job correctly nobody notices, and so it’s not in people’s minds.”
The median age of Washington’s water pipes is 79 years. Half the pipes were installed before 1936, and some date to the Civil War.
Unsurprisingly, these decades-old pipes are breaking down.
“We have about 240,000 water main breaks in the United States each year. or about a break every two minutes,” Pallasch said.
The challenges in replacing these pipes, and especially paying for them, vary around the country. In larger cities like Washington, large construction projects have to overcome a significant amount of red tape before ground can be broken.
In Los Angeles, the drought has decreased water consumption, which in turn has cut revenue.
For smaller municipalities, the cost of upgrades outweighs what the community can afford. During a Senate hearing on water infrastructure last week, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., detailed some of the challenges facing small towns in his home state.
“The town of New Hebron has 400 people. They’re being told they need to spend $3 million to comply with the [Environmental Protection Agency],” he said. “How are they going to do that?”
Congress has been approving about $2.37 billion annually for water and wastewater infrastructure. It is no small amount, but the American Water Works Association estimates that the country will need to spend over $1 trillion to upgrade and expand the nation’s water infrastructure in the next 25 years.
A number of causes have led to this enormous cost. But two were spurred by the federal government in the 1980s.
In 1972, Congress authorized the use of federal funds to build municipal wastewater treatment plants, as part of the Clean Water Act. Through 1984, $41 billion was invested in this program, making it the largest nonmilitary public work since the construction of the Interstate highway system. But the program was targeted for cuts by the Ronald Reagan administration, which argued that the program had fulfilled its intent to replace the backlog of sewer treatment system repairs. Instead of grants, states were offered loans through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
As funding was being cut, the EPA increased the number of regulated contaminates from 23 in 1986 to 83 in 1996. Upgrading water systems to filter out these contaminants became more expensive, and federal loans were often not enough.
“We’ve had to increase rates, and we’re on a schedule to increase rates,” said David Berger, who has been mayor of Lima, Ohio, for 27 years. Upgrading the water infrastructure in his city of just under 40,000 people will cost $110 million. The median household income in Lima is $26,943, and a third of the population lives beneath the poverty threshold.
In testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Berger said he felt suffocated by increasing water regulations from the EPA without funding assistance.
“For too long, local governments have had to deal with the heavy hand of EPA,” he said. “And our residents, particularly our poorest residents, have been left to pay a disproportionate burden of the costs.”
Erik Olson, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagreed with Berger’s assessment in his testimony.
“As we saw in the case of Flint, the EPA was afraid of its own shadow,” he said. “It took almost a year for them to take action. I think the evidence shows that the EPA is stepping back and treating the states as partners.”
Olson agreed that the federal government needs to play a larger role.
“There is a need for federal assistance when it comes to funding these projects,” he said.
The EPA says plenty of systems are falling short. In 2013, the EPA reported 16,802 health-based violations. Almost half were total coliform bacteria contamination. Coliform bacterium comes from fecal matter, and is used by the EPA as an indicator of poor sewer water treatment.
On a Wednesday night in April, DC Water General Manager George Hawkins gave a presentation in a high school auditorium about rising water rates.
“Here’s what your money is going toward,” Hawkins said, as a Powerpoint slide displayed a dollar split into pieces. The largest piece, at 37 cents, is for “all other capital projects.” The next largest, 22 cents, is the Clean Rivers Project.
Whenever Washington is hit with a heavy rainstorm, the city’s sewage system – which includes sanitary and storm runoff in one set of pipes in much of the city – can and flood neighborhoods and overwhelm the city’s sewage treatment plant. Much of the overflow is dumped into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. The untreated sewage ends up in the Potomac, which serves as the source of drinking water for communities in Maryland and Virginia.
The Clean River Project will temporarily store overflow during storms, then treat it before putting it into the river. But it will cost $2.6 billion, and the federal government has only covered a tenth of that cost.
“The rates we’ve had over the past few decades, they’ve covered fixing the system but not replacing or expanding it,” Hawkins said. “We all benefit from clean water systems. I would like to see the cost spread around to all of society, not just the urban taxpayer.”
Tom Lindberg is working on the First Street Tunnel in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, near Howard University. The streets, lined with Victorian-age houses, was prone to sewer overflows. The pipes in the area are often as old as the houses.
“I feel bad for the people who live here, having to deal with us for the past two years,” Lindberg said of the project, which has torn up several intersections. “But this needed to happen.”
It’s upgrades like the Clean River Project that are needed here in Washington, and the rest of the country.
“It was a constant struggle to keep replacing pipes,” said Greg DiLoreto, president of the ASCE and the former head of the Tualatin Valley Water District near Portland, Ore. “The longer you put off replacing the system, the more it will cost to fix it.”
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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