Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly (PART-1)

By: CHarles Duhigg (The New York Times, March 14, 2010)

One recent morning, George S. Hawkins, a long-haired environmentalist who now leads one of the largest and most prominent water and sewer systems, trudged to a street corner here where water was gushing into the air.

A cold snap had ruptured a major pipe installed the same year the light bulb was invented. Homes near the fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood were quickly going dry, and Mr. Hawkins, who had recently taken over the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority despite having no experience running a major utility, was responsible for fixing the problem.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
As head of Washington's water department, George Hawkins, left, is on the scene every time a major sewer or water line breaks.


Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Mr. Hawkins's goal is to replace, within the next century, the pipes that were installed in Washington a hundred years ago.

Readers' Comments

"I am willing to pay higher rates if it is for upgrading our sewer/water system. American cities are decaying. Upkeep of the infrastructure has been put off too long."
Jim Harrington, San Diego, CA 
 
As city employees searched for underground valves, a growing crowd started asking angry questions. Pipes were breaking across town, and fire hydrants weren’t working, they complained. Why couldn’t the city deliver water, one man yelled at Mr. Hawkins.

Such questions are becoming common across the nation as water and sewer systems break down. Today, a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

In Washington alone there is a pipe break every day, on average, and this weekend’s intense rains overwhelmed the city’s system, causing untreated sewage to flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

State and federal studies indicate that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly.

For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

Mr. Hawkins’s answer to such problems will not please a lot of citizens. Like many of his counterparts in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta and elsewhere, his job is partly to persuade the public to accept higher water rates, so that the utility can replace more antiquated pipes.

“People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water,” said Mr. Hawkins, who before taking over Washington’s water system ran environmental groups and attended Princeton and Harvard, where he never thought he would end up running a sewer system.

“You can go a day without a phone or TV,” he added. “You can’t go a day without water.”

But in many cities, residents have protested loudly when asked to pay more for water and sewer services. In Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Sacramento — and before Mr. Hawkins arrived, Washington — proposed rate increases have been scaled back or canceled after virulent ratepayer dissent.

So when Mr. Hawkins confronted the upset crowd near Dupont Circle, he sensed an opportunity to explain why things needed to change. It was a snowy day, and while water from the broken pipe mixed with slush, he began cheerily explaining that the rupture was a symptom of a nationwide disease, according to people present.

Mr. Hawkins — who at 49 has the bubbling energy of a toddler and the physique of an aging professor — told the crowd that the average age of the city’s water pipes was 76, nearly four times that of the oldest city bus. With a smile, he described how old pipes have spilled untreated sewage into rivers near homes.

“I don’t care why these pipes aren’t working!” one of the residents yelled. “I pay $60 a month for water! I just want my toilet to flush! Why do I need to know how it works?”

Mr. Hawkins smiled, quit the lecture, and retreated back to watching his crew.

On Capitol Hill, the plight of Mr. Hawkins and other utility managers has become a hot topic. In the last year, federal lawmakers have allocated more than $10 billion for water infrastructure programs, one of the largest such commitments in history.

But Mr. Hawkins and others say that even those outlays are almost insignificant compared with the problems they are supposed to fix. An E.P.A. study last year estimated that $335 billion would be needed simply to maintain the nation’s tap water systems in coming decades. In states like New York, officials estimate that $36 billion is needed in the next 20 years just for municipal wastewater systems.

As these discussions unfold, particular attention is being paid to Mr. Hawkins. Washington’s water and sewer system serves the White House, many members of Congress, and two million other residents, and so it surprised some when Mr. Hawkins was hired to head the agency last September, since he did not have an engineering background or the résumé of a utility chief. Source

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