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Blog December 2023 Updated April 2024

A Water Utility Problem? How Ageing Infrastructure Impacts Us All

Over 2 million miles of water pipe lie underground in the US, much of which is now reaching the end of its lifespan. This is a worry for water utilities, but is ageing infrastructure actually a problem for us all?

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Water is a necessity without which we cannot function, but if you’re lucky enough to have clean, safe drinking water in your home, it’s probably something you take for granted. To some extent this is because the infrastructure supporting our water system is hidden from sight below ground.

Why is Ageing Infrastructure an Issue?

From mains water pipes to reservoirs, pump stations, sewage pipes and treatment plants, we rely on a network of pipes to deliver and treat our water. Unfortunately, many of these pipes are now reaching the end of their useful life, having been installed in the early to mid 20th century, or even in the late 1800s in some cases.

Most water pipes in US were estimated to last between 75 and 100 years before they needed to be replaced due to wear and tear but many of them are now reaching the end of their lifespan.

The average US water-network pipe is 45 years old, with some cast-iron pipes more than a century old.

And it’s not just the age of the pipes that is causing problems – it’s also the construction materials, with many pipe networks still featuring lead service lines. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that:

Some 9.2 million lead pipes carry water into homes across the US.

With mature pipes potentially causing both quality and supply issues, it’s little wonder that the American Water Works Association's (AWWA) annual survey of issues facing the sector continues to list ageing infrastructure as the industry’s top concern.

How Much Water is Lost to Leaks?

As pipes age and begin to break, water loss from leaking pipework is one of the biggest challenges faced by all water utilities. In the UK and Europe, pipes that were laid down over 100 years ago are beginning to deteriorate. What’s worse these pipes are often located in hard to reach areas beneath our towns and cities making them difficult to maintain and repair.

Without gushing water at street level, leaks can be difficult to detect. According to the UK’s water services regulation authority, Ofwat, 30-50% of leaks are small, background leaks. They are identified when water enters the system but is not delivered to homes or businesses.

The UK is currently losing a staggering 3 billion litres of water each day through leaky pipes.

This figure is inevitably magnified when we consider leaks in the US, where over 148,000 municipal water systems distribute 39 billion gallons of water each day. Here, a break in the water pipework occurs every 2 minutes on average, losing 6 billion gallons of water every day.

Each year, 2.1 trillion gallons of water are lost in the US due to breakdowns in the water infrastructure.

Will Population Growth Pose Problems?

Access to clean water is already an issue in today’s world of 7.7 billion people. By 2050, when the world’s population is expected to reach around 10 billion, the strain on our water systems will be extreme.

In the UK, where the population is forecast to grow to 75 million by 2050, more people means more pressure on an ageing network of pipes and water treatment systems. England’s draft Regional and Water Resource Management Plans expect water companies to reduce leakage by 50% and to reduce per capita consumption to 110 litres per head per day by 2050 in order to deal with this pressure.

Without additional asset replacement, the UK could experience a 25% increase in supply interruption.

It’s a similar picture in the US where ageing infrastructure doesn’t have the capacity to absorb growth in towns and cities. To further complicate the picture, in rural locations, where the population is shrinking, water utilities have a reduced revenue base. With more than 90% of the average utility’s revenues coming directly from constituents’ water bills, this makes infrastructure renewal increasingly difficult.

In 2023, 11% of US water utilities said they will be challenged to meet long-term water supply needs.

How Will Climate Change Impact Supply?

Climate change already presents significant challenges for water companies with an increase in extreme weather events including heatwaves, drought, floods, and freezing temperatures, all of which place additional pressure on infrastructure and assets.

The US EPA reports that heat waves now occur three times more often than in the 1960s.

But it’s not just a lack of water that causes issues – too much water can be equally problematic. Intense rainfall causes surface flooding and can result in sewer flooding, which is one of the most serious service failures.

Many water resource recovery facilities are future-proofing by upgrading treatment equipment and increasing design flow to accommodate the increase in extreme rainfall events, but are we moving fast enough?

An estimated 16,000 wastewater treatment plants are already functioning at 81 percent of their design capacity in the US.

As unpredictable weather events continue to ramp up, without serious investment in water infrastructure, it seems boil-water alerts could become a more familiar phenomenon for us all.

How Can Water Utilities Overcome Infrastructure Issues?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for water utilities. Depending on the condition of your assets, the kind of environment you serve, and the weather conditions you experience, the challenges will vary.

Despite these variables, however, water utilities across the globe are now looking at how to repair, replace, and upgrade their assets in order to reliably deliver safe, clean drinking water to a growing population.

Effective asset management will play a vital role in the success of this endeavour as water utilities look to make limited funds go further. Not only can a strategic asset management plan help to prioritize capital spend and investment in maintenance, but it can also help to improve resilience by developing a risk assessment and emergency response plan.

Click here for more ideas on how to create a successful utility asset management plan. Or request a demo to discover how AMCS asset management software can help you implement your plan in the field.

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