Harsh winter tests U.S. water infrastructure

By Steve Tagert

The winter of 2013 – 2014 was one of the most brutal in recent American history. Many parts of the U.S. endured record amounts of snowfall and months of bitter, sub-freezing temperatures. Even areas of the country that normally experience relatively mild winters were affected by the extreme weather. Atlanta was hit with several debilitating snow and ice storms, and California saw its worst drought in years, followed by torrential rains that caused flooding and mudslides.

For the average American, a harsh winter means snowy and dangerous commutes, high heat bills, and roads pocketed with potholes. But for our country’s water industry the severe winter was a true test of our aging infrastructure, which can be especially vulnerable in extreme temperatures.

Let’s examine why water infrastructure can be susceptible to problems in the winter, and how investing in infrastructure can help curtail costly damage and prolonged service outages.

Understanding Why Water Mains Break

A large part of the U.S. water system dates back to the years shortly after World War II, when water main was predominately made of galvanized or cast iron. And there are a lot that are even older, from the turn of the last century, made of old cast iron or cement. The cast iron is susceptible to even relatively small changes in temperature. A variation of just 10 degrees is enough to cause these pipes to contract and expand. A perfect storm of cold soil, frost, and cold water can combine to add stress to water pipes. This can – and often does – result in breaks, even during relatively moderate winters.

As temperatures near the freezing point, additional stress inside and outside of the old pipes can occur, increasing their vulnerability to breakage. Water temperature changes more slowly than air temperature, so the impact of cold water on these cast pipes can cause breakages to take place days after air temperatures drop. When water mains break or freeze, residents can be without water service for hours, or even days, as crews work overtime to dig through the frozen ground to repair or thaw pipes.

The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that an average of 240,000 water main breaks occur each year, but with many water systems reporting an increased amount of breaks in January and February of 2014, it can be expected that the total number will be higher than average this year due the extreme weather. Cities including Syracuse, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Baltimore are all reporting a record number of breaks this winter.

Pennsylvania experienced 300 main breaks in the Greater Philadelphia region just two months into 2014, compared to 398 breaks in all of 2013. Despite the higher rate of breaks, there were no major service disruptions to Auqua’s 1.4 million customers in the state.

What Can Be Done: A Lesson in Prevention

With thousands of miles of aging pipe buried underground, it’s reasonable to expect a particular section of pipe will fail or break at some point. The challenge for water utilities is to proactively work to minimize the number of breaks that occur – saving emergency repair costs and improving service reliability to customers. By examining trends in water main breaks over time, a utility provider is better able to identify categories of pipe that are more prone to breaks, and thus proactively target that pipe for replacement. Of course, this is no small feat.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that $384 billion of improvements are needed through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe drinking water to 297 million Americans. But there’s proof that making a proactive investment in water infrastructure can also reduce main breaks year-round, and especially during extreme weather.

In Pennsylvania, for example, we experienced several hundred fewer breaks during the winter of 2013 – 2014 than the winter of 2008 – 2009, which was the last time much of our service area saw comparable extreme temperatures and high snow totals.

We credit this decrease almost solely to our investment in renewing and improving our water and wastewater infrastructure through continuous capital investment. Every year, we invest millions of dollars to improve plants, tanks, distribution systems and other infrastructure, including replacing miles of aging water main with more durable ductile iron main. To determine which of our nearly 6,000 miles of water main in Pennsylvania need to be upgraded, we carefully assess our system and target pipes for replacement or rehabilitation that would provide the most benefit in terms of improved reliability and reduced leakage.

In 2013, Aqua Pennsylvania invested $239 million in infrastructure improvements, including more than 100 miles of pipe replacement to reduce the potential for service disruptions, as well as plant upgrades to enhance water quality.

There’s no doubt that this winter was exceptionally challenging for many water utilities. But the wild weather should serve as confirmation that upgrading our water systems is no longer an optional expense. By investing in our water and wastewater infrastructure, we’re investing in our water delivery systems for both the short and long term. After all, next winter is right around the corner.

Steve Tagert is president of Aqua Pennsylvania, a water and wastewater utility that serves more than 1.4 million residents in 31 counties across the Keystone State. Tagert was named president of Aqua Pennsylvania in March 2012 and has been with the company for more than 40 years. In addition, Tagert has served on the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) Board since 2007 and has supported the organization’s Water for People Charity and the Partnership for Safe Water. He has also served on the Water Utility Council of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Water Works Association. Aqua Pennsylvania is a subsidiary of Aqua America, one of the largest U.S.-based publicly-traded water and wastewater utilities.


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