The Impact of Aging Water Infrastructure

A NextGen Blog by Lauren Rose, University of Exeter.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG post. Since 2007, NWNL has fostered watershed education with internships and blog opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series hosts student essays; sponsors a forum for its high school senior, college and grad contributors; and invites proposals from new students to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Lauren graduated from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland with a degree in Zoology. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Island Conservation and Biodiversity with Jersey International Centre of Advanced Studies. She believes nature-based solutions best help our expanding human population live in harmony with the natural world. While a UK student, Lauren is investigating US water infrastructure, using Flint, Michigan’s water crisis as a pivotal case-study.


Water is essential for all life, yet this natural resource is often taken for granted – both in its availability and quality. According to the World Health Organization, one in three people lack access to safe drinking water and subsequently experience higher rates of disease and reduced health overall.1World Health Organization Many believe this issue is only rarely associated with developed countries. However, in recent years, it has become a more frequent issue within developed countries, including the United States.

Young boy filling up bottle with safe drinking water in Porterville, California

Throughout the US, water infrastructure is about to reach the end of – or has surpassed – its lifespan. Over 60% of infrastructure in the US Northeast and Midwest is over 90 years old.2World Health Organization,3Morckel, Victoria There are approximately 2.8 million miles [4.5 million km] of distribution pipes in the US that yearly, on average, experience a piping break every 426 -558 feet [0.13 – 0.17 km].4Juuti, Petri et al.

The deterioration of aging water infrastructure in the US reached the level of global news with the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. In early 2014, Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Issues arose when Flint decided to not add corrosion-control chemicals to the water. As a result, lead and other metals seeped from the city’s pipes into the community’s water supply.5Torrice, Michael The government didn’t acknowledge this issue until October 2015, despite residents’ complaints of cloudy, foul-tasting water and tests conducted by external experts indicting high levels of lead.6Bosman, Julie et al,7Delaney, Arthur and Lewis, Philip

Hamilton Dam on Flint River’z unsafe water. Photo by George Thomas, courtesy of Creative Commons.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits drinking water to exceed 15 parts per billion of lead. but in 2015 every ward in Flint exceeded that limit by 6 – 32%. Not until 2019 was it reported that proper standards had been met for 90% of Flint households.8Renwick,Dustin Over six years have passed since the crisis in Flint; and while the situation has improved, it has yet to be completely resolved. The disaster that occurred in Flint, has already caused a decrease in fertility (12%) and an increase in miscarriages in women from the area.9Grossman, Daniel It was also found that exposed children experienced increased lead levels in their blood, which detrimentally impacts development and biological processes, including intelligence, behavior and overall life achievement.10Hanna-Attisha et al

Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, Michigan, said, “Every American deserves to have access to safe drinking water. America is the richest country in the world – we can afford to provide safe drinking water to our citizens.” Actively improving the water infrastructure in the area could dramatically improve the health and safety for Flint residents and also provide jobs for local people, thus fuelling the local economy. Since the Flint water crisis, many citizens and government officials have expressed a concern over the maintenance of aging infrastructure.11Abbey-Lambertz, Kate The Flint water crisis should serve as a warning to other cities, rather than being treated as a single unfortunate event. Awareness and knowledge are key.

Congress banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, although those already installed remain. Despite this, an estimated 15 to 22 million Americans still receive their water through lead pipes that almost certainly contains some level of lead, although it may fluctuate throughout the day. The only way to ensure that drinking water is completely free of lead is to remove lead pipes, although this is an incredibly expensive process. However, the EPA believes that the cost of replacing pipes is justified.12Rosenthal, L and Craft, W. Ronnie Levin, a retired EPA scientist, said, “You have significant one-time costs and an infinite number of years of benefits.”

Flint lead pipe replacement. Photo by Jake May.

Across the pond- and for me, a little closer to home – London and other major European cities currently face similar issues. Throughout Europe, it is predicted that US $526 billion will be spent on water and wastewater infrastructure between 2016 and 2025 – $256 billion of which will be dedicated to maintaining and expanding the 6.7 million km of aging and leaking pipes.13Hays, K.

Whereas the main issue in Flint was water contamination, the largest concern in the UK is bursting pipes. In London, over 60% of water pipes are over 60 years old, with some reaching 150 years.14 The Thames Water Utilities, Ltd. supplies water to the majority of London’s 8.8 million residents through a network of almost 20,000 miles [32,000 km] of aging pipes. With London’s population predicated to expand by 8.8% annually, the pressure on this precious resource will only increase. The Environment Agency predicts that London and its surrounding areas will become the most water-stressed areas in the UK and will most likely experience major water shortages by 2050.14Reynolds, M.

These aging pipes, coupled with the high demand for water, have led to numerous breaks and leaks within the network. Thames Water attended to 4,150 leaks from April 2015 to April 2016. The following year, this increased to 5,229 leaks. Often these leaks are difficult to detect; and despite approximately 1,400 leaks being fixed a week, Thames Water missed their leak reduction targets by 72 million liters a day in 2019.15Morrison, S. That is equivalent to over 1 million showers!  

A London street flood due to a bursting pipe. Photo by Kotomi, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Water system infrastructure often gets less attention than other infrastructure because it is a network of underground pipes: “out of sight, out of mind.”16Roelof, T and Shellenbarger, P,17American Water Works Association Furthermore, impacts of aging water infrastructure are being further exasperated by climate change. As extreme weather events such as droughts and fires become more frequent, we need clean water now more than ever for growing populations producing increasing rates of water usage.

Water is our most critical natural resource. As we strive to keep our water sources clean and plentiful, we must look after our own health, as well as that of our wildlife and our planet. To achieve such an immense objective is no easy feat, but it is possible – and imperative. In the words of Erin Brockovich, who fought hexavalent chromium pollution of water in Hinkley CA: “If you can’t make it work, you find another way.” With goals of paramount importance such as clean water we shouldn’t change the goal – just the plan. It is up to us all to take action.  

If there is a clean water issue you’d like to discuss or local data you’d like to share, please visit Erin Brokovitch’s Community Health website, set up for citizens to report and review their community’s environmental and health-related concerns.

The PG&E compressor station responsible for polluting Hinkley CA wells with hexavalent chromium, exposed by Erin Brockovich

Sources:

Abbey-Lambertz, Kate. “Michigan Residents Are Pretty Unhappy With Rick Snyder.” Huffpost Politics, 18 April 2016. www.huffpost.com/entry/rick-snyder-flint-approval-rating_n_57151a32e4b0060ccda3db1e.

AWWA (American Water Works Association). “Buried no longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge.” AWWA, 2012. http://www.climateneeds.umd.edu/reports/American-Water-Works.pdf.

Bosman, Julie et al. “As water problems grew, officials belittled complaints from Flint.” New York: The New York Times, 20 Jan 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/us/flint-michigan-lead-water-crisis.html

Delaney, Arthur and Lewis, Philip. “How The Federal Government Botched Flint’s Water Crisis.” Huffpost Politics, 12 Jan 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water-epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c.

Grossman, Daniel. “The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan.” Economic faculty working papers series, 2017. https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=econ_working-papers.

Hanna-Attisha et al. “Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response.” American public health association, pages 283-290, Feb 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4985856.

Hays, K. “Europe to Increase Water Infrastructure Spend 23% by 2025 for $526 Billion Total CAPEX.” Bluefield Research, 22 Sept 2016. www.bluefieldresearch.com/europe-increase-water-infrastructure-spend-23-2025-526-billion-total-capex.

Juuti, Petri et al. “Resilient Water Services and Systems: The Foundation of Well-Being.” IWA Publishing, 15 Aug 2019.

Morckel, Victoria. “Why the Flint, Michigan, USA, water crisis is an urban planning failure.” Cities, pages 23-27,2017.

Morrison, S. “London could face mass water shortage by 2040 if ancient pipes are not replaced.” Evening Standard, 10 Mar 2018. www.standard.co.uk/news/london/london-could-face-mass-water-shortage-by-2040-if-ancient-pipes-are-not-replaced-a3786126.html.

Renwick,Dustin. “Five years on, the Flint water crisis is nowhere near over.” National Geographic, 25 Apr 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/flint-water-crisis-fifth-anniversary-flint-river-pollution.

Reynolds, M. “To stop London running out of water, a crack squad is hunting down the city’s mega leaks.” Wired, 15 Nov 2019. www.wired.co.uk/article/london-thames-water-leaks.

Roelof, T and Shellenbarger, P. “The price of neglect: Michigan must spend billions on water, sewer fixes.” Bridge Magazine, 22 Mar 2016. https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/price-neglect-michigan-must-spend-billions-water-sewer-fixes.

Rosenthal, L and Craft, W. “Buried Lead: How the EPA has left Americans exposed to lead in drinking water.” APMreports, 2020. www.apmreports.org/story/2020/05/04/epa-lead-pipes-drinking-water

Torrice, Michael. “How Lead Ended Up in Flint’s Tap Water.” C&EN, 11 Feb 2016. http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i7/Lead-Ended-Flints-Tap-Water.html

WHO (World Health Organization). “New report on inequalities in access to water, sanitation and hygiene also reveals more than half of the world does not have access to safe sanitation services.” World Health Organization, June 18, 2019. Accessed Oct 20, 2020, by LR. https://www.who.int/news/item/18-06-2019-1-in-3-people-globally-do-not-have-access-to-safe-drinking-water-unicef-who

Leave a Reply