A Ticking Time Bomb

July 1, 2015
Aging infrastructure’s effects on safe urban drinking water delivery

About the author: David Noble is international public relations and communications manager for Bluewater. Noble can be reached at [email protected].

According to the United Nations, 10 years from now there will be more than 37 megacities around the world with populations of more than 10 million. Four of those cities will be in North America: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C.-Baltimore. 

Few of us give much thought to how the water flowing from our taps gets there and where it goes after being flushed down the drain. Yet, existing water delivery and treatment systems in the U.S. and most of the industrialized world are threatened by fast-growing urban populations, decaying infrastructure and climate change, putting quality of life on the line.

In a new book published in 2014, “Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource,” author David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering for the University of California, Berkeley, says a revolution is required in the way we upgrade our water supply systems. 

The book explains that we face an alarming array of challenges sparked by climate change and aging infrastructure that Sedlak believes cannot be solved without a fundamental change in our relationship with water. Sedlak’s book opens the window for discussion and serves as a “kick in the pants” for individuals and local and national authorities alike about how to safeguard water supplies. 

Aging & Crumbling

While states like California are confronting epic-scale droughts, stressed water pipe, storage tanks and distribution systems deep below the cement we walk and drive on are leaking an estimated 2 trillion gal of water annually due to premature pipe corrosion and breakage. According to the American Water Works Assn., that amounts to about one-sixth of all water pumped in the U.S.

The website www.watermainbreakclock.com reports that 850 water main breaks occur each day in North America, at a total annual repair cost of more than $3 billion. This does not include the high costs of emergency equipment, depleted water supply, traffic disruptions and lost time. 

There is no escaping the dire truth that America’s water treatment and delivery infrastructure is aging rapidly. A sizeable proportion of America’s hundreds of thousands of miles of existing water pipeline are more than 100 years old, but the majority was laid during the booming 1940s, 1950s and 1960s using cast iron, which corrodes after two to three decades.

Sadly, investment in new or replacement pipeline since the 1960s has not matched the growing needs of expanding communities. A news story that appeared in the Denver Post in July 2013 pinpointed the city of Baltimore, which installed more than 1,400 miles of water pipeline between the 1910s and 1960s, but added just 116 more miles over the next 40 years.

Contamination Concerns

Water leaks out, but also leaks in, carrying any pollution it may have picked up, from chemicals to organic waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that each year, more than 10 trillion gal of untreated rainwater and melted snow pour off roofs, roads, parking lots and other surfaces to threaten sewer systems and drinking water supplies.

In a study called “What’s on Tap,” the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that antiquated waterworks and pollution are combining to affect the quality of drinking water residents receive in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other California cities. The study concluded that pollution from nitrates, pesticides, and chemicals from farming and industry was a health concern, especially for children and pregnant women.

The fact is that while our tap water is treated to make it safer to drink, some contaminants may remain, including heavy metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Older waterworks and facilities were not designed to handle the broad spectrum of pollutants found in source water today, even though it may meet the requirements set by the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972. 

Against this background and the gradual collapse of water pipeline infrastructure, it is not surprising that an Associated Press (AP) study revealed the presence of a vast array of pharmaceuticals in municipal drinking water, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones. The AP research studied drinking water supplies serving approximately 41 million Americans in 24 major metropolitan areas, from Southern California to northern New Jersey.

As water quality comes increasingly into the spotlight, it is perhaps not surprising that a survey conducted by Bluewater earlier this year revealed that a majority of Americans are concerned about the quality of the water coming out of their kitchen faucets. The online survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults aged 18 to 70 found that more than 55% were concerned about the quality of their tap water, while 15.7% avoided drinking tap water altogether.

Some 40.2% of respondents said they use a water pitcher filtration device to clean their tap water, while 6.4% said they use an under-sink reverse osmosis water purification system. Some 20.8% said they rely on buying bottled water in bulk to use at home for drinking, while 82% said they believe it is vital to their health and wellbeing to have a dedicated water purifier at home to remove dangerous substances from their tap water.

“These findings are very relevant at this time, as millions of Americans are living in areas suffering aging municipal water delivery systems or [are] threatened by severe water shortages that will place an extra burden on safe water supplies,“ said Niclas Wullt, managing director of the Sweden-based Bluewater brand, which sells water purifiers in the U.S., China and Europe. “Our tap water and health cannot be separated, because many conditions such as heart disease and cancer have been linked to contaminants regularly found in tap water.”

The Future of Infrastructure

How do we improve the sustainability of our water supply when the Water Quality Assn. itself has noted that “water that leaves the treatment facility can become contaminated by the time it shows up at your tap?“

On an individual scale, one immediate answer is to install a point-of-use filtration system. For the public water supply, however, a major upgrade is required, with greater emphasis on local water supplies, encompassing water recycling, rainwater harvesting and seawater desalination.

Sedlak, also deputy director of Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure, believes there are signs of a confluence of factors that could usher in a new, fourth generation of urban water that he dubs Water 4.0. He explains in his book that Water 1.0 applies to the first revolution, the aqueducts of the Roman Empire, Water 2.0 came at the turn of the 20th century through drinking water treatment advancements—first by filtration and later with the addition of chlorine—while Water 3.0 gave us sewage treatment plants.

In a conversation with UC Berkeley Media Relations, Sedlak warned that the challenge with upgrading water infrastructure is that it requires smart investments over a long period of time. Nevertheless, he believes that the revolution has begun.

When asked how Water 4.0 is shaping up, Sedlak replied, “Revolutions always have front lines, and the front lines of the water revolution are the places where the water problems are most severe. California has been on the front lines for water recycling and is poised to take a lead on storm water capture and use.”  

As for the future, Sedlak says sustaining the cities of tomorrow will require innovative conservation techniques, serious improvements to centralized water systems and adoption of decentralized urban water systems. The billion-dollar question: Where will the money will come from?

Download: Here

About the Author

David Noble

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