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Aging Water Infrastructure

EPA researchers and engineers work to help communities deal with aging and failing drinking and wastewater systems.

Water flows into the street

On the morning of December 23, 2008, drivers in suburban Maryland were confronted with a torrent of water rushing down River Road. Somewhere beneath the pavement, a 66-inch water main ruptured, allowing some 150,000 gallons per minute to cascade onto the road in standing waves three to four feet high. Rescue crews launched from boat, fire engine, and helicopter were able to rescue all stranded motorists and their passengers. Luckily no one was hurt.

Following a four-month forensic investigation, The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission determined the cause of the water main break could be traced back to its original installation in 1965.

At 43 years of age, the pipe lurking beneath River Road was relatively young compared to many still in use in areas of the country that are easily twice that age, or older. The nation’s water infrastructure—the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water and remove and treat waste water—is aging.

Age and deterioration are taking a toll. Every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.

EPA researchers are taking action to meet the challenges of the nation’s aging water infrastructure.

The Agency’s report, Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis (PDF) (54 pp, 2.3 MB), a comprehensive assessment of the difference between needs and spending on the nation’s water infrastructure, identifies a potential $500 billion gap in funding by the year 2020, in large part due to aging.

“EPA works with collaborators and stakeholders to conduct projects that will fill identified aging drinking water and wastewater research gaps,” said Thomas Speth, Director of the Water Supply and Water Resources Division at EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory. “The application of new technologies and management practices from this research could also narrow the large funding gap.”

Engineers and scientists in the EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program are working to identify critical research needs and to develop, test, and demonstrate innovative technologies that will assist communities to address the challenges of aging water infrastructures by reducing the cost and increasing the effectiveness of existing or new infrastructure. EPA researchers collaborate with partners and stakeholders in four primary research areas: condition assessment, system rehabilitation, advanced concepts, and treatment technologies for wastewater and water reuse.

The Program supports EPA’s larger Sustainable Water Infrastructure Initiative, which guides efforts to change how the nation views, values, manages, and invests in its water infrastructure. Both programs are based on forging successful partnerships, bringing drinking water and wastewater utility managers, trade associations, local watershed protection organizations, and federal, state, and local officials together to ensure that all components of our nation’s water infrastructure are addressed, and see that EPA’s research results reach those who need it most.

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