This past winter’s pothole crisis had pretty much everyone with a vehicle, not to mention Department of Transportation crews, aggravated and digging into cash reserves. But as troublesome as potholes can be in their own right, they also signify a much deeper, more costly and potentially devastating situation – one that can disrupt life in mere seconds and cannot simply be patched up and smoothed over.
It is estimated the U.S. relies on more than one million miles of water mains, and those pipes have been subjected all winter to the same expansion and contraction dynamics that turn roadways into treacherous pothole-filled obstacle courses. Harsh weather aside, anywhere from 600-800 water main breaks occur every day due to the natural degrading of systems and lack of resources to upgrade aging pipes. As hard as it is to conceptualize that number, consider this: every pothole you swerve around or, even worse, HIT with your car, could represent an underground pipe that is cracked and leaking, or worse.
Consequently, this past winter (much like electric company crews, fire companies, EMTs, etc.) there was been a group of first-line emergency responders at from water companies working harder than ever to assure that the water that communities need to thrive and survive keeps flowing. These experts have been on the job consistently in the most severe conditions, repairing main breaks, and replacing broken pipes.
Despite the responders’ efforts and repairs, the biggest issue compromising water systems remains long after spring outshines the bleak memories of winter: much of our water infrastructure is in need of replacement, especially in older cities and towns. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the nation’s water and wastewater systems a D grade. Many people might be surprised to hear this – after all, water seems readily available without issue. But, aside from experiencing a main break or passing by crews performing upgrades and repairs, most people see very little of the reality.
The encouraging news is that those of us in the water industry DO see what lies below the surface, and we ARE constantly on the job to improve systems, research and develop better technologies, and be as proactive as possible in harsh situations and periods such as this recent winter. In fact, many top people in the water industry and beyond convened in Washington, D.C. this week for Infrastructure Week (including our President and CEO Susan Story and Senior VP of Corporate Strategy and Business Development Mark Strauss) to shine a spotlight on the needs and discuss possible solutions. But I’ll discuss that in more detail soon…
Solutions exist – and federal and state lawmakers are considering the role they could play in enabling private sector funding and partnerships to help turn the dire situation of our water infrastructure around. In the meantime, water utilities (both public and private) will continue to work on local levels to not only ‘fix the leaks’ but to revitalize and rebuild the infrastructure our communities need to be healthy.
While a pothole may be a literal bump in the road, the damage occurring to our underground infrastructure requires much more coordination, resources and effort to remedy.