By David Mongollón

I was doing my weekly survey of water-related news items floating around the Internet and ran across several water main breaks that prompted boil water alerts to be issued, one for more than 250,000 people in Broward County, Fla.

Seems as if we’ve suffered an inordinate number of these incidents with more regularity in just a few years. I recall reading last year, during a spate of breaks in the driest part of summer, about links to soil compaction due to drought. Over the winter, a bunch more sprang up, many attributed to effects of a hard freeze. Others recently occurred as far and wide as Boston, Brooklyn, North Carolina and Hawaii. The one near Boston was credited to a more than 100-year-old pipe, according to one report. Hmmm, how much scale, slime and other deposits build up on the interior of a century-old pipe, I wonder?

All this made me question if anyone tracks water main breaks—or boil water alerts. And since it was June and I just attended the American Water Works Association trade show in Anaheim, Calif., I thought I’d check in with them on the subject. At the AWWA website, 6,355 documents popped up. A graphic for one study showed breaks from 1993-95 for 620 U.S. utilities with 315,668 miles of distribution pipe, i.e., 225,235 breaks for the three-year period and a high of 80,146 in 1994.

Another report by the Executive Intelligence Review, from September 2002, though, quotes USEPA statistics indicating about 237,000 breaks a year and points out chronic leaks result in a 20 percent loss of water carried in aging city systems. It also cites a likely increase in boil-water alerts and sewage overflows in the next decade as 50 percent of the nation’s 700,000 miles of pipes continue to degrade.

Of course, boil water alerts aren’t all related to water main breaks. They can be issued for spikes in turbidity, a suspected cross-connection event, or natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, etc., that may compromise water quality. And a few different sources concede breaks and alerts are inevitable. Still, a number of cities were upset in June when the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released its report, “What’s On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities,” and they were found wanting. Similar reports this year have come from publications as diverse as Mother Jones and U.S. News & World Report magazines.

While some problems can occur on occasion, we have to wonder whether we’re shortchanging ourselves in the context of infrastructure assessment reports over the past few years by organizations such as the AWWA, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and USEPA. It should be pointed out as well that the agency’s 1999 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey—which assesses 20-year investment needs for drinking water of $150-446 billion and $331-450 billion for “clean water,” or wastewater and sanitation—is being updated now with a questionnaire available at:

AWWA and ASCE argue the USEPA figures are vastly underestimated. Regardless of whose scenario is employed, though, all acknowledge an investment gap in our water infrastructure that begs to be met. The problem could be attributed largely to politicians squirming to dodge the issue or paint it in rosy terms to avoid electoral backlash. Efforts such as those launched in February and pushed again in mid-June by Sens. Bob Graham and Jim Jeffords to boost funding have barely made a ripple in the pond. Unfortunately, the trend is to pass the buck on to the next generation. Regardless, advances in the POU/POE industry position it as always to fill in where others leave off.

On a sunnier note, WC&P Technical Review Committee member Dick Chmielewski will be spending July 4 in Jamaica where he’ll be one of the newest Peace Corps recruits. The former ResinTech veteran was likely to be stationed in Kingston working on water quality issues.

“It’ll be a change of pace and, frankly, something I’ve been wanting to do for some time,” Dick said. “It’s been amazing—the response from customers and people I’ve talked to—so many have offered equipment and small systems to donate.”

Good luck, do good work and enjoy the adventure.


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