Water Distribution Systems in the United States Reaching the End of Their Design Life

In this century, our water distribution systems will need to be entirely replaced. There are more than 148,000 active drinking water systems in the nation. Just 9% of all community water systems serve over 257 million people, while the bulk of community water systems, 91%, or nearly 46,000 in total, serve communities with populations under 10,000 people. About 13 million households in the nation rely on water from private wells.

Our nation’s drinking water infrastructure is made of 2.2 million miles of pipe, most of which is underground and unseen by the millions of consumers who rely on it every day. Unfortunately, this often means that water infrastructure is out of sight, and therefore, out of mind. Some of the nation’s oldest pipes were laid in the 19th century. Pipes laid post-World War II have an average life span of 75 to 100 years, meaning that many of them are reaching the end of their design life.

Between 2004 and 2017, various sources estimated that there were between 10 to 37 leaks and breaks per 100 miles of pipe. One report found a 27% increase in water-main break rates between 2012 and 2018, reaching an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 breaks per year; this is equivalent to a water main break every two minutes. Smaller utilities can have up to twice as many pipe breaks as larger utilities. This is often due to smaller utilities having more miles of pipe per customer, and a smaller customer base to collect revenue resulting in fewer funds for repair and asset management.

Water utilities are increasing the rate of pipe replacement and repair. In 2015, utilities were replacing, on average, 0.5% of their pipes per year, meaning it would take an estimated 200 years to replace the entire system. By 2019, utilities were replacing between 1%-4.8% of their pipelines per year on average, a replacement rate that matches the lifecycle of the pipes. It is estimated that more than 12,000 miles of water pipes were planned to be replaced by drinking water utilities across the country in 2020.

Drinking water systems currently lose at least 6 billion gallons of water, or 9,091 Olympic-size swimming pools, every day. This equates to 2.1 trillion gallons of non-revenue water loss per year. The U.S. lost an estimated $7.6 billion of treated water in 2019 due to leaks.

With the need to improve our water distribution system also comes the need to find a new generation of water sector workers. Workforce challenges can pose an issue in the future, as many current and experienced drinking water workers estimate to retire in the next decade. From 2016 to 2026, it is estimated that 10.6% of water sector workers will retire or transfer annually, with some utilities predicting up to half of their current staff retiring within the next 5 to 10 years. This can be a problem since there is a shortage of workers coming into the water workforce, and seasoned professionals will take their experience and knowledge with them to retirement.

So what does this mean for the future of the Water Industry? With the requirement of emergency response plans (ERPs) due to America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 for all water systems serving more than 3,300 people, facilities are taking the future of their plants into consideration. All water systems must submit their ERPs and risk assessments to the EPA by December of 2021. Water Utilities can be proactive by adapting to the latest water technologies and innovations like leak detection, seismic resilient pipes, smart water quality monitoring, and real-time data sensors. Planning for the future can help utilities plan financially, stay organized during staffing changes, and target their weaknesses.

For more information, reporting, and statistics, read the ASCE 2021 Report Card on Infrastructure


“Drinking Water.” ASCE's 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, 25 Mar. 2021, infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/drinking-water.