Water Industry News

March 1, 2007

Look out below! Aging pipes giving out

U.S. faces a sinkhole epidemic as its century-old water and sewer infrastructure leaks and erodes.

William Yardley / New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. -- After a sinkhole swallowed a 40-foot sewer-repair truck here the day after Christmas, the truck's crew crawled to safety, muddy and mystified.

Last summer in Irving, Texas, a 2-year-old boy disappeared near a sinkhole. One theory was he was kidnapped. Another was he was lost in the sewer system that broke open and caused the collapse.

In December, firefighters in Brooklyn, N.Y., rescued a woman carrying groceries who fell into a hole that opened beneath her on a sidewalk.

And in Hershey, Pa., a damaged storm drain caused a 6-foot-deep sinkhole in Chocolate Town Park, nearly sinking the town's New Year's Eve celebration.

Local and state officials across the country say thousands of miles of century-old underground water and sewer lines are springing leaks, eroding and -- in extreme cases -- causing the ground above them to collapse. Though there is no tally of sinkholes, there is consensus things are getting worse.

The Environmental Protection Agency has projected that unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, nearly half of the water system pipes in the United States will be in poor, very poor or "life elapsed" status by 2020.

"I'm not exaggerating," said Stephen P. Allbee, a project director in the agency's water division who helped make the projections. "It's a really, really big public issue, and it's going to be with us for a long time."

Local geology or underground hazards are blamed for many sinkholes.

Increasingly, authorities say, as cities grow older and basic repairs are put off, when the ground gives way it is human-induced.

In its 2005 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure," the American Society of Civil Engineers gave drinking water and waste water infrastructure across the country a D-minus and suggested it would take an investment of $390 billion to bring waste water infrastructure alone up to par.

Estimates vary on what the costs could be, but water utilities and environmental groups have been campaigning to educate the public and local officials to get more money for repairs. But they face an uphill battle, persuading people to pay higher water and sewer rates, and politicians to approve rates instead of building schools, parks, libraries and roads.

Raising awareness
The American Water Works Association, whose members include more than 4,700 utilities, has begun an advertising campaign "to raise this conversation about buried water infrastructure above ground," said Greg Kail, a spokesman for the association.
One advertisement, placed in spots ranging from bus shelters in Miami to newspapers in Anchorage, Alaska, features a picture of a faucet with the words, "Do you know how often you turn me on?" Another ad in the works will focus directly on problems with water mains, and include the phrase, "Don't let me break down in front of you."
"The concept is to personify the infrastructure," Kail said. "We're not trying to scare people. We're trying to make them aware that this is a real concern that deserves our attention to keep it from being a crisis in the future."