Environment
4:53 pm
Fri August 8, 2014

If A Water Main Isn't Broke, Don't Fix It (For 300 Years?)

Originally published on Sun August 10, 2014 6:22 pm

Most of us don't really give it a second thought: We turn on the tap, pour a glass of water and drink it down. But the U.S. has experienced a number of water-related problems this year, from the toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie to a massive water main break in Los Angeles that spilled 20 million gallons of water, and a chemical spill into West Virginia's Elk River that fouled the drinking water supply.

Writer Charles Fishman says by taking our water supply for granted, we ignore big problems. He's the author of The Big Thirst and tells NPR's Melissa Block that when the modern water system was designed more than 100 years ago, it was a remarkable achievement.

"The reason we don't think about it is because of its brilliance. The water is unfailingly safe, it's really the best water system in the world, and it's totally reliable," Fishman says.

Until it isn't. The U.S. has 1.2 million miles of water supply mains, but many of the pipes are so old that water utilities lose 1 out of every 7 gallons of drinking water before it arrives to a customer.

"The out-of-date nature of the water system is popping up all over. The regulations are out of date, and the pipes are out of date, and our attitude is out of date," he says.


Interview Highlights

On his favorite water main

It happens to be right here in Washington, D.C. The water main runs under K Street, where all the flossy lobbying firms are headquartered. It's actually the same size and purpose as the water main that broke in [Los Angeles] — it's a 30-inch water main, so very large. It was installed in Washington, D.C., in 1860, before Abraham Lincoln moved in to the White House. And it's in use every day. It has been in use every day for the last 154 years. And that's just kind of amazing.

On the problem with a 150-year-old pipe

It's a testimony to how robust the system is, but there's a larger point. The water main that broke in LA was 93 years old. Los Angeles Water will tell you they are on a 300-year water main replacement cycle. Washington, [D.C.], used to be on a 300-year water main replacement cycle; now we're on a 200-year water main replacement cycle. We're not actually planning to replace most of the water mains any time in our lifetime or the lifetime of our kids or their kids. And the reason isn't because they probably don't need to be replaced. The reason is because we don't pay attention to the water system.

On why we should pay more for water

We don't pay enough for the water we use to cover modernizing the system. We get a great deal. The average water bill is $34 a month for an American family. Basically, all the water you need costs a dollar a day. The truth is that if everybody paid 10 bucks a month more on their water bill, we could step up the improvement of the water system.

On new practices we should put in place

There are things that don't cost any money — it's not just the pipes that are out of date. The regulations are out of date. And we need to step up and modernize how we manage our water, as well as the pipes themselves. Most communities do not have a secondary water supply. Most big cities should have a second source of water, and the easiest additional source of water would be a water recycling plant. The technology exists. It's totally bulletproof to take the water that a community already uses, clean it, and use it again.

And the second thing is, we haven't looked at what's in drinking water supplies in 30 or 40 years, really hard. A perfect example is what happened in Toledo. The toxin that the Toledo water utility found in the water, they weren't actually required to look for. And there were no standards for what level it should be, what level is safe. There weren't even standards over the weekend for how to measure what was in the water. There are lots of things going into our wastewater, which ends up in our water supply, that didn't even exist 40 and 50 years ago. You think about all the medicines that people take now every day.

On moving forward

We need to take a step back and say: What's the right way to grab hold of our water supply? We're seeing this sort of popcorn-popping of problems everywhere. The nice thing about water is, all water problems are solvable, just like the leak in the roof of your house is solvable. They aren't solvable if you close your eyes. They aren't solvable if you ignore them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Most of us don't really give it a thought. We turn on the tap, pour a glass of water and drink it down. But writer Charles Fishman says by taking our water supply for granted we ignore big problems. He's author of the book "The Big Thirst." And he joins me now. Charles, welcome to the program.

CHARLES FISHMAN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And it's been a busy time. We have seen that toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie. Last week there was a massive water main break in Los Angeles - 20 million gallons of water were spilled and then earlier this year we saw the chemical spill into West Virginia's Elk River that fouled the drinking water supply - three really different water problems, completely different causes. But to you are they linked?

FISHMAN: I think it's really important to see them as part of one pattern. And I would add the California drought and Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. is now lower than it has been any time since it was filled. Here's what connects all those things - our water system was designed a 100 years ago. It was a remarkable engineering achievement. It's really brilliant. The reason we don't think about it is because of its brilliance. The water is unfailingly safe. It's really the best water system in the world. And it's totally reliable. What links what's been happening just this year - just in the last seven months - is that the water system's being overtaken. The out of date nature of the water system is popping up all over. The regulations are out of date and the pipes are out of date. And our attitude is out of date.

CORNISH: Well, let's talk about the pipes. There aren't a lot of people who I know who have a favorite water main but I gather that you do.

FISHMAN: I do have a favorite water main. It happens to be right here in Washington, D.C., under K Street - where all the flossy, lobbying firms are headquartered. It's actually the same size as the water main that broke in LA. It's a 30 inch water main - so very large. It was installed in Washington, D.C. in 1860 before Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House. And it's in use everyday. It has been in use everyday for the last 154 years. And that's just kind of amazing.

CORNISH: But Charles, couldn't you look at that and say, hey, that water main is doing great. It's been there for 154 years. That's a testimony to how robust our system is?

FISHMAN: It is exactly that. But there's a larger point. The water main that broke in LA was 93 years old. Los Angeles water will tell you they are on a 300 year water main replacement cycle. Washington used to be on a 300 year water main replacement cycle. Now we're on a 200 year water main replacement cycle. We're not actually planning to replace most of the water mains anytime in our lifetime or the lifetime of our kids or their kids. And the reason isn't because they probably don't need to be replaced. The reason is because we don't pay attention to the water system and we don't pay enough for the water we use to cover modernizing the system.

CORNISH: You're saying we should be paying more for our water? You're saying we're getting a pretty good deal?

FISHMAN: We get a great deal. The average water bill is $34 a month for an American family. Basically all the water you need costs a dollar a day. The truth is that if everybody paid 10 bucks month more on their water bill we could step up the improvement of the water system. But there are things that don't cost any money. It's not just the pipes that are out of date. The regulations are out of date. And we need to step up and modernize how we manage our water as well as the pipes themselves.

CORNISH: What kinds of regulations? What new management practices would you want to see?

FISHMAN: I think there are two really important things. For me the most important thing is most communities do not have a secondary water supply. The problem in Charleston and the problem in Toledo was both those cities relied on one place for their water. Most big cities should have a second source of water. And the easiest additional source of water would be a water recycling plant. The technology exists. It's totally bulletproof to take the water that a community already uses, clean it and use it again. And the second thing is we haven't looked at what's in drinking water supplies in 30 or 40 years really hard. A perfect example is what happened in Toledo. The toxin that the Toledo water utility found in the water, they weren't actually required to look for. And there were no standards for what level it should be, what level is safe. There weren't even standards over the weekend for how to measure what was in the water. There are lots of things going into our wastewater which ends up in our water supply that didn't even exist 40 and 50 years ago. Think about all the medicines that people take now every day. So we need to take a step back and say, what's the right way to grab hold of our water supply? We're seeing this sort of popcorn popping of problems everywhere. The nice thing about water is all water problems are solvable - just like the leak in the roof of your house is solvable. They're aren't solvable if you close your eyes. They aren't solvable if you ignore them.

CORNISH: Charles Fishman is author of the book "The Big Thirst." Charles, thanks so much.

FISHMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.