Our Sewer Systems Are Collapsing While Local Governments Are Broke. Yoo Hoo, Federal Stimulus Programs!

Water main ruptures happen in my part of the city quite a bit, so I see these problems first-hand. But here's the thing: These massive infrastructure investments are currently beyond the financial capabilities of most local governments -- and local taxpayers. This is exactly the sort of thing that would benefit from federal stimulus funds - or congressional earmarks:

Today, a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

In Washington alone there is a pipe break every day, on average, and this weekend’s intense rains overwhelmed the city’s system, causing untreated sewage to flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

State and federal studies indicate that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly.

For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

Mr. Hawkins’s answer to such problems will not please a lot of citizens. Like many of his counterparts in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta and elsewhere, his job is partly to persuade the public to accept higher water rates, so that the utility can replace more antiquated pipes.

“People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water,” said Mr. Hawkins, who before taking over Washington’s water system ran environmental groups and attended Princeton and Harvard, where he never thought he would end up running a sewer system.

“You can go a day without a phone or TV,” he added. “You can’t go a day without water.”

But in many cities, residents have protested loudly when asked to pay more for water and sewer services. In Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Sacramento — and before Mr. Hawkins arrived, Washington — proposed rate increases have been scaled back or canceled after virulent ratepayer dissent.

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