Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum

Wasting Away: Baltimore’s Leaky Water System

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A recent report from CNBC on Baltimore’s crumbling infrastructure and its impact on the delivery of clean water highlighted one critical dynamic in the crisis facing cities and states across the U.S.

With many water systems operating well past their intended useful lives, the monumental challenge extant is repairing/replacing leaky water pipes, crumbling storm drains and outdated wastewater treatment facilities in an era of pressured municipal budgets.

Most of the pipes under Baltimore’s streets were put there before Elvis Presley recorded his first album. Since then, years of deferred maintenance have left behind a vast, leaky network—roughly 20 percent of the 225 million gallons of water flowing into the city from three huge reservoirs never makes it to a water customer.

As Baltimore struggles to stick to a 10-year, $3 billion plan of capital improvements, city officials estimate it would take twice that much money to get the job done.

It’s a colossal job. Baltimore has 4,000 miles of buried water pipes; until recently, the city had been replacing just 5 miles of it every year. Officials have set a goal of replacing 20 miles this year and hope to pick up the pace by 5 miles a year until they’re eventually installing 40 miles of new pipe annually.

While that plan includes allocations for new water meters and billing systems and enclosing the reservoirs that supply the city’s drinking water, it doesn’t include the cost of repairing flood damage, or the environmental damage from the uncontained runoff to local streams and Baltimore Harbor. Those overflows are coming from a 100-year-old wastewater system of more than 3,000 miles of sewer lines and 110 pumping stations.

Of all the categories of crumbling infrastructure, the cost of water projects falls most heavily on towns and cities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency established standards for clean water in the 1970s, the federal government has gradually phased out the ambitious spending required to achieve those goals. Meanwhile, the scope of federal regulations—and the cost of keeping water clean enough to meet them—continue to expand.

As the watersheds that supply cities have seen usage by commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential interests expand, more contaminants are now reaching drinking-water sources, according to the Congressional Research Service. Since 1986 the list of regulated drinking-water contaminants has more than tripled to more than 100 including heavy metals, disinfectants, organic and inorganic chemicals, pathogens and radionuclides linked to dozens of harmful health effects.

But the rising cost of cleaning up those contaminants has fallen almost entirely on local governments. It’s a costly mandate. Over the next 20 years, America’s local governments and water districts will need to spend some $380 billion to keep customers adequately supplied with fresh water, according to an EPA estimate updated earlier this year.

It will take another $300 billion to overhaul an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 miles of public sewer mains, much of it installed after the end of World War II, along with roughly 15,000 wastewater treatment plants, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

As federal grants have evaporated over the past 30 years, water costs for consumers, particularly in metropolitan areas, have risen in an ever-steepening curve.

A water price index covering the 20 largest U.S. cities and 10 others around the country has risen 25 percent since 2010, according to Circle of Blue, a global water watchdog group. The group found that the cost of infrastructure repair can have a huge impact on local rates. Some cities keep costs down by delaying needed infrastructure projects while others move forward by passing the cost along to their residents. Other cities are creating savings by stretching existing capacity through conservation efforts. Despite an increasing population, total water use in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1970s. According to the ASCE, per capita consumption has fallen to the lowest since the 1950s, thanks to advanced residential technologies and a decline in use related to a shrinking manufacturing base.


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