Bursting pipes. Leaks. Public health scares.
America is facing a crisis over its crumbling water infrastructure, and fixing it will be a monumental and expensive task.
Two powerful industries, plastic and iron, are locked in a lobbying war over the estimated $300 billion that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade.
It is a battle of titans, raging just inches beneath our feet.
“Things are moving so fast,” said Reese Tisdale, president of the water advisory firm Bluefield Research. And it’s a good thing, he says: “There are some pipes in the ground that are 150 years old.”
How the pipe wars play out — in city and town councils, in state capitals, in Washington — will determine how drinking water is delivered to homes across America for generations to come.
Traditional materials like iron or steel currently make up almost two-thirds of existing municipal water pipe infrastructure. But over the next decade, as much as 80 percent of new municipal investment in water pipes could be spent on plastic pipes, Bluefield predicts.
The outcome of the rivalry will also determine the country’s response to an infrastructure challenge of epic proportions.
By 2020, the average age of the 1.6 million miles of water and sewer pipes in the United States will hit 45 years. Cast iron pipes in at least 600 towns and counties are more than a century old, according to industry estimates. And though Congress banned lead water pipes three decades ago, more than 10 million older ones remain, ready to leach lead and other contaminants into drinking water from something as simple as a change in water source.
As many as 8,000 children were exposed to unsafe levels of lead in Flint, Mich., after the city switched to a new water supply but failed to properly treat the water with chemicals to prevent its lead pipes from disintegrating. Corroding iron pipes, meanwhile, have been linked to two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint that added to the public health emergency.
The plastics industry has seized on the post-Flint fears.
The American Chemistry Council, a deep-pocketed trade association that lobbies for the plastics industry, has backed bills in at least five states — Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Indiana and Arkansas — that would require local governments to open up bids for municipal water projects to all suitable materials, including plastic. A council spokesman, Scott Openshaw, criticized the current bidding process in many localities as “virtual monopolies which waste taxpayer money, drive up costs and ultimately make it harder for states and municipalities to complete critical water infrastructure upgrades.”