America’s US$300 billion war taking place right beneath their noses

Installation of a new copper water pipe in Lansing, Michigan, U.S. Image credit: Laura McDermott/The New York Times

The United States (U.S.) is facing yet another crisis – though this is rather of a different sort. Rather than fighting off financial meltdowns or fending off other more obvious threats, this one includes leaks, bursting pipes, and in some cases, public health scares and disasters.

The U.S. is, put simply, facing a crisis that involves its disintegrating water infrastructure, and going about fixing and upgrading it will be a task that is not just mammoth, but also pricey.

And above it all, two immense industries, one of plastic, another of iron, have locked horns over the estimated US$300 billion that local municipalities will likely be spending on water and sewerage pipes in the coming ten years.

Although orthodox materials such as iron and steel account for nearly two-thirds of the existing municipal water pipe infrastructure, Bluefield Research, an independent insight firm in the water industry, has forecasted that as much as 80 per cent of new municipal investment in water pipes could go into plastic pipes.

“Things are moving so fast,” Reese Tisdale, president of Bluefield Research, said to The New York Times. “And it’s a good thing – there are some pipes in the ground that are 150 years old.”

But how this war will conclude will set the tone for how drinking water is delivered to homes across the nation for generations.

In just a few years, in 2020, the average age of the 1.6 million miles (2.57 million kilometres) of pipes in the U.S. will be 45 years. And, according to some industry estimates, in at least 600 towns and counties, cast iron pipes can go up to a hundred years old. And while lead water pipes were banned by Congress thirty years ago, there are still more than 10 million remaining ones, capable of leaching lead and other contaminants into drinking water, triggered by something as simple as a change in water source – much like Flint, Michigan, U.S.

The Flint water crisis saw more than 8,000 children exposed to high levels of lead when the city changed their water source but did not treat the water with chemicals to ensure the lead in the pipes did not disintegrate, resulting in two outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint and even leading to fatalities.