In this 29 July 2014 file photo, water cascades down a stairway leading to a parking structure across from Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus after a water main rupture under nearby Sunset Boulevard flooded a large area of the campus in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that it will cost $384 billion over 20 years to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water systems, which will require tens of thousands of miles of replacement pipe and thousands of new or renovated plants. Photo: Mike Meadows / AP Photo

By Ryan J. Foley
26 September 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Deep inside a complex of huge tanks, drinking water for Iowa's capital city is constantly cleansed of the harmful nitrates that come from the state's famously rich farmland.

Without Des Moines Water Works, the region of 500,000 people that it serves wouldn't have a thriving economy that has become a magnet for tech companies such as Microsoft. But after decades of ceaseless service, the utility is confronting an array of problems: Water mains are cracking open hundreds of times every year. Rivers that provide its water are more polluted than ever. And the city doesn't know how it will afford a $150 million treatment plant at a time when revenues are down and maintenance costs are up?

"We're reaching the end of the life cycle of some of the most critical assets we've got," said Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of the utility, which has a downtown treatment plant that was built in the 1940s, long before nitrates, which can harm infants, became a pressing concern. He said the industry is getting "all kinds of these warning alarms that we haven't heard before."

A similar crisis is unfolding in cities across the country. After decades of keeping water rates low and deferring maintenance, scores of drinking water systems built around the time of World War II and earlier are in need of replacement. The costs to rebuild will be staggering. The costs of inaction are already piling up. The challenge is deepened by drought conditions in some regions and government mandates to remove more contaminants.

At stake is the continued availability of clean, cheap drinking water — a public health achievement that has fueled the nation's growth for generations and that most Americans take for granted.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that it will cost $384 billion over 20 years to maintain the nation's existing drinking water systems, which will require tens of thousands of miles of replacement pipe and thousands of new or renovated plants. The American Water Works Association, an industry-backed group, puts the price even higher — $1 trillion to replace all outdated pipes and meet growth over the next quarter-century.

"The future is getting a little dark for something as basic and fundamental as water," said Adam Krantz of the Water Infrastructure Network, a lobbying group that is fighting cuts to key federal water programs. […]

To make matters worse, the need for new investment comes as revenue is falling, in large part because Americans are using less water and installing more efficient toilets and showerheads.

Many households affected by drought have cut their usage, either voluntarily or because of mandatory orders. Even after the drought ends, their old habits often never return. That is good for conservation but means less money for water systems, which charge customers based on the amount used.

To deal with the loss of income, many water districts have been forced to raise rates. So in essence, customers are paying more for using less. [more]

Drinking water systems imperiled by failing infrastructure

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