On Saturday night of Easter weekend in 2011, the city of Washington, Iowa, had a water-main break. Then another. And another. And one more.
The four main breaks kept workers busy from Saturday night until early morning Monday. They also left some residents without water during that time, and the whole town had a boil order for a few days.
“That was a nightmare,” said J.J. Bell, the city’s maintenance and construction superintendent.
They were among 41 water-main breaks in Washington last year, the most in Bell’s 16 years.
Similar stories can be found nationwide, with about 240,000 water-main breaks occurring each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s an average of more than 650 a day, in pipes that carry drinking water and serve fire departments.
A 2007 EPA report to Congress found that the nation’s drinking water utilities needed $334.8 billion in infrastructure investments in the next 20 years.
Iowa accounted for $6.1 billion of that, of which nearly $4.4 billion was for transmission and distribution mains. That would include new water mains as well as replacement of existing mains, said Dennis Alt, supervisor of the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s water-supply engineering section.
In recent years, government and industry officials have been sounding the alarm that the nation’s water infrastructure needs are great, but some of them say the public is still mostly unaware.
“You keep hearing about it but nothing ever happens,” said Dana Edwards, Monticello’s public works director. “It’s kind of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing.”
Water systems are funded primarily by rates, so customers will soon get the message.
“There’s little question that household water bills are going to rise over the next couple of decades,” said Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association.
People in smaller communities will be hit harder by rate increases because there aren’t as many customers to cover the costs, he said.
A report his organization put out earlier this year was more dire than the EPA study, saying an investment of more than $1 trillion in U.S. drinking-water pipes will be needed over the next 25 years.
Iowa is in better shape than many parts of the nation, Alt said. Iowa water systems have a better record of replacing water mains than do those in older, large metropolitan areas, such as big cities on the East Coast, he said. Also, there are not as many catastrophic water-main breaks here, because Iowa has fewer large-diameter, high-pressure mains, he said.
Things are coming to a head because so many pipes are hitting the end of their life expectancies at the same time. The American Water Works Association a decade ago declared this the “dawn of the replacement era.”
The association says pipes that date to before 1910 last an average of 120 years, those installed between 1911 and 1945 last about 100 years and post-World War II pipes have an average life of 75 years. The oldest pipes last the longest because they are made of thick cast iron.
“In Iowa City, like many communities in Iowa, we’re in the century club,” said Ed Moreno, Iowa City’s water superintendent.
Some of Iowa City’s 310 miles of water mains date to the old water plant, which was built in the 1880s, he said.
Iowa City has seen its water main breaks per 100 miles — a common industry measure — decrease from a little more than 40 per year in the mid-1990s to just above 20 annually the past couple of years.
Cedar Rapids has experienced a slight decrease in its rate in recent years, with 15.4 main breaks and leaks per 100 miles in fiscal 2011. It’s had roughly 100 each of the past several years. There were 675 miles in the system as of fiscal 2011, and about half was installed since 1975.
One study found that nationwide there were about 25 breaks per 100 miles annually, Kail said, although utilities define breaks in different ways. The EPA, on its website, says “the number of breaks increases substantially near the end of the system’s service life.”
Water-main breaks are common enough that, while being interviewed for this story, Moreno took a call about one in Iowa City. Bell, from Washington, was interviewed while gathering equipment to respond to a break.
Age isn’t the only factor in deteriorating pipes. Certain areas have soil that is corrosive and can make pipes brittle. Newer, plastic pipes don’t corrode, the DNR’s Alt said.
Water mains often are under roads, so breaks can damage streets and other infrastructure. There also are health concerns with contamination, which is why breaks are sometimes accompanied by boil orders.
During the Easter water-main break in Washington, Allen and Betty Fuhr went to their daughter’s house a couple of miles away to shower. At home they used bottled water to brush their teeth and boiled water, when it returned, for other uses.
Allen Fuhr, 68, said they’re lucky they weren’t hosts of an Easter meal. “It would have been an inconvenience,” he said.
Some cities have programs to replace problem water mains each year. Cedar Rapids, for example, maps leak locations and, when there’s a cluster, knows there is an area that needs to be addressed, said Bruce Jacobs, the city’s utilities engineering manager.
There will always be more need than there is money, Jacobs said, but the city must consider things like keeping water rates reasonable.
Costs associated with water-main projects include damage to streets, connecting water lines to buildings and testing to meet federal standards, said Manchester City Manager Timothy Vick. His town, with one-third of its water mains more than 100 years old, spends about 10 percent of the Water Department’s annual budget on water-main replacement and water tower maintenance.
“Doing the water projects is not cheap,” he said.
Many cities take advantage of major street projects and replace problem mains then. Also, it is now common practice to require developers to install water mains, at their expense, when building new subdivisions.
Despite the growing water-main problem, city and industry officials said, roads and bridges tend to get the attention where infrastructure is concerned.
“But there is an entire highway system beneath the highways,” Kail said.