Aging Water Mains & Pipes Are An Issue

Workers repair a large pipe…one of many in Dalton Utilities’ underground network of water distribution and wastewater collection pipes.

By Mark Marlowe,  Senior VP of Watershed Services

Indispensable to jobs, the economy, our health and our communities, water runs through our lives in many ways. But do we truly appreciate the VALUE of water?

It’s fair to say that water is life. Up to 60% of the human body is water, the brain is 70% water, and the lungs are nearly 90% water. We are made of water, and we can’t survive without it.

Dalton Utilities customers pay a few dollars for 1,000 gallons of clean, drinkable water which passes all federal regulations.  We drink this water and cook with it. We use it for washing clothes, dishes and our bodies.  We water lawns and wash cars with it. It is plentiful and cheap.  In short, most of us take it for granted. 

The average American uses 176 gallons of water a day. Every drop that enters and leaves your home or business must travel through an extensive network of underground pipes.  Largely because of these buried pipes, Americans have access to safe and clean water and sanitation services.

The unseen hero of this story is the vast infrastructure — 800,000 miles of water pipe and 600,000 miles of sewer line — that transports clean water to customers any time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and takes the used water back for treatment. These systems have worked silently for decades, in some cases more than a century, without major interruptions. But now, they need our attention.

A great deal of the water mains and distribution pipes that run underground in our country are quite old – some being over 100 years old!  A lot of this aging infrastructure was installed just after World War II, so, like the Baby Boomers who came along about the same time, these pipes have their own issues with aging and declining health!

Because underground pipes last a long time, water systems that were built in the latter part of the 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century have, for the most part, never experienced the need for pipe replacement on a large scale.  The dawn of an era in which these pipes will need to be replaced will continue for decades to come.

According to a study by the American Water Works Association, the cost of repairing and expanding U.S. drinking water infrastructure will top $1 trillion in the next 25 years – an expense that will likely necessitate higher water rates. Delaying work to rehabilitate infrastructure will only increase future costs. 

Locally, we have approximately 1,400 miles of drinking water mains (pipes) underground. Some of these pipes are huge – up to 42 inches in diameter – and a large percentage are over 50 years old.  In some locations, the pipes are even older! If we had to, as a community, replace all 1,400 miles of this pipe at today’s prices, the cost would likely be in excess of $500 million! At Dalton Utilities, we have invested in new and rehabilitated underground pipes over the last 15 years and will continue to make sure pipe is replaced at the most cost-effective point in its service life.

Even though Dalton Utilities’ investment in infrastructure has placed our community in a better position than others who have not updated their infrastructure, there are still many underground pipes in our water and wastewater system which will need to be replaced in an ongoing and never-ending process. The labor and materials to rehabilitate these underground pipes, as well as escalating costs to treat, distribute and collect both water and wastewater, will put upward pressure on water and wastewater costs even though they will be executed in a planned and frugal manner.

(This is second in a series of articles about Dalton Utilities’ water system that will be running in the next few months.)