› Midwest Update

Slipping Through the Cracks

We’re losing billions of gallons of fresh, clean water thanks to leaky pipes.

About 783 million people worldwide lack access to fresh water, and women in sub-Saharan Africa women can spend as many as eight hours a day fetching it. Americans are pretty lucky to have drinkable water delivered to their homes—so it’s a shame that thanks to bad pipes, Americans are squandering their good fortune.

Photo: Russ Allison Loar

Beneath our sidewalks, under our roads, and below our houses, the infrastructure that carries water to our faucets, showerheads, and washing machines is crumbling. A lot. In the eight Great Lakes states alone, 66 billion gallons of potable water leak from pipes every year.

If you extrapolate those losses to the rest of the country, that equals 2.1 trillion gallons wasted annually, up to 18 percent of our treated water. In addition to wasting a precious natural resource, bad pipes—most were installed at the turn of the last century or right after World War II—are throwing real money down the drain, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. It’s time to do something about it.

“We are a very water-rich area of the country, let alone the world, and what better place to make a strong argument for better practices in water efficiency?” says Danielle Gallet, an infrastructure strategist at the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, which recently published a report making the case for reinvesting in the region’s water infrastructure.

“A lot of the infrastructure was designed to last a long time, but not forever,” says Tim Loftus, a water resource planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Water mains are made of various materials, from wood to cast iron to copper. As water shoots through them at high pressures, friction causes the pipelines to erode—like a river carving out a canyon over time. Meanwhile, the soil encasing the pipes can corrode them from the outside. When we dig up damaged pipelines, they often come out with gaping holes.

Although utilities increasingly cite leaks as a growing concern, because water pipes are buried out of sight, we tend to forget about our outdated plumbing systems until disaster strikes. For instance, when a pipeline burst at the University of California, Los Angeles in July (and California doesn’t have a drop to spare). Or when businesses that rely on adequate water pressure (think restaurants, laundromats, and even office buildings) have to close up shop for a few days.

A report published earlier this year on water losses from Lake Michigan, which supplies drinking water to 5 million people, found that leaky and aging pipes cost the region millions of dollars a year.

Photo: Center for Neighborhood Technology

If our pipelines don’t get an upgrade, utilities will keep ponying up big bucks to treat water that never reaches its destination. Already prices are going up in a number of locations in the United States. Between 1996 and 2010, the cost of water rose 90 percent.

“It’s really not a choice of whether or not we maintain our water system for future generations,” says Greg Kail of the American Water Works Association. “It’s a matter of how we do that.”

To stem the flow of loss, utilities can conduct audits to see where the water is going and then create a leak protection program. But before they can fix a pipeline, they need to know where it needs upgrading. A number of technologies from sonar to tiny submarines with tiny cameras are helping them figure that out.

AWWA estimates it will cost about a trillion dollars over the next 25 years to repair our country’s water infrastructure. But those upgrades could save households in small communities about $550 on their annual water bills and $100 for big-city residents. “It’s definitely worthy of our investment,” says Kail.

A trillion dollars sure sounds scary, but remember this is water we’re talking about—a very key building block to life on earth. We can’t afford to just go with the flow on this one.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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