Atlanta water main breaks indicative of larger US infrastructure woes



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This past week’s water woes in Atlanta are indicative of infrastructure issues impacting broad swaths of the country, experts say. 

Late last week, three water mains in the Georgia city broke, leaving numerous residents without water. One major pipe has already been repaired, but many residents still remained under a boil water order for days. 

The issue is just one example of the problems caused by the nation’s aging and often brittle water systems.

“A lot of our water infrastructure was built between 50 to 100 years ago, so there’s quite a bit of it that’s at the end of its service life and we see this in water main breaks,” said Richard Luthy, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University. 

He said main breaks are a “common story” in older cities; “it’s just a symptom that these need to be replaced.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2021 that a water main breaks every two minutes in the U.S. — leaking enough water to fill 9,000 swimming pools each day. 

“We have not invested in our infrastructure the way we should,” said Darren Olson, chair of the group’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure.

The implications of such breaks are not only a loss of water access for consumers, but also for essential services.

“You’ve got hospitals and other critical infrastructure being served by those water mains,” Olson said, adding that when they break, it can cause “cascading effects.”

“It can affect a hospital that maybe has to turn away patients,” he added. “You can have a manufacturing facility shut down for a day or two, and those impacts can be extremely expensive on the US economy.”

Luthy noted that part of the issue is the cost of replacing pipes, especially when the problems are not always obvious until something goes wrong. 

“It’s like having a car that you’ve already paid off, you keep using it, but someday it’s not going to work anymore, and you need to recognize that,  ‘uh oh, I’m going to have to get a new car,'” he said. 

The problem is not limited to Atlanta. Water troubles have made headlines over the years around the nation, from breaks in various locales to floods impacting water supplies in Jackson, Miss., last year. 

Beyond physical infrastructure, toxic substances have also taken their toll — with lead pipes in cities like Flint, Mich., making water unsafe and water itself seeing contamination across the country from chemicals, including PFAS. 

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used to make nonstick and waterproof products and have been linked to illnesses including certain cancers. A federal study last year found the toxic chemicals can be found in nearly half of U.S. tap water.

There is a major — though not complete — federal solution to the water infrastructure issue now being implemented across the U.S.: 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

That law sets aside billions to bolster the nation’s water infrastructure. It puts $11.7 billion toward state funds that can address a range of water issues; $15 billion specifically meant to address pipes made out of lead, which is a neurotoxin; and a total of $9 billion to address emerging chemicals like PFAS. 

“That’s only a relatively modest percentage of the total need out there,” said Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior strategic director for health. “There’s going to really be a need for additional local and state investment and clearly some additional federal investment is needed as well.”



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