Winter Potholes – A Jarring Glimpse At Infrastructure Needs Below The Surface

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – May 15, 2014 – 1 Comment

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.

1 Comment

  • David M. Rossi says:

    What I would have liked to have seen included in the American Water report is how many of those 600-800 water main break resulted from ferrous material?

    We all can agree it is not an easy resolve with regard to the examples given especially the one about loss of cash reserves. However; perhaps it is time to build for the future rather than the moment. New development always comes with cost and more often than not the developer is already looking to take short cuts even before breaking ground and it typically begins with reducing construction oversight and trickles on down from there. If I were King” I would install only non-ferrous material for water main and water services. All water mains would be placed in a right-of-way typically back of walk, gutter or beyond a open drainage ditch and for the long side water (continues no fittings) service that crosses a roadway or hard-scape of the approved type it would be incased with PVC pipe an example for this would be 1 ½” PVC conduit for 1” Polybutylene service pipe or equal so that in the event the service pipe were too rupture or fail its water under pressure would relieve itself at the opposing pipe ends and thus eliminating another “pothole crises”. We have all heard the argument when considering the example I just gave it would be cost prohibited even knowing that historically with the cost of doing business has steadily increased it would cost a water purveyor much, much more to make the necessary repairs in the future with respect to the removal of contaminated road sub-base and soil washout material, placement of new raw material, soil testing, asphalt replacement, traffic control, water disinfection, customer notification and even more. Therefore I believe that the cost for a PVC water main, PVC encasement for a water service line would be much, much cheaper in the long run. And be sure to include locating insulated wire #10 throughout so that location of the new water infrastructure installed can be correctly located. Non-Ferrous material offers a host of benefits especially when compared to ferrous material not to mention it being continually subject too corrosion.

    It is better to be penny wise than dollar foolish…..wouldn’t you agree.