Kathy L. Pape: Nation’s crumbling water and wastewater systems require constant attention

Kathy L. Pape - Contributing Columnist | August 30th, 2015 1:09 pm

The Times Leader editorial headline on Aug. 19 hit the nail on the head: “Water disruption in Wyoming Valley puts focus on precious resource – and aging pipes.”

The recent main break in Kingston, traced to a large water line dating back to 1889, brought the issue of crumbling infrastructure to the forefront. Unfortunately, it takes events like this – and the associated inconvenience – to get the public to pay attention to the source and systems that deliver clean drinking water.

The editorial asked why Wyoming Valley communities rely on water pipes that are so old. In fact, aging water infrastructure is not solely a Northeastern Pennsylvania issue, nor even a Pennsylvania issue. The nation’s water and wastewater systems are outdated and falling apart, and they urgently need significant reinvestment. The American Water Works Association estimates that approximately $1 trillion needs to be invested over the next 25 years in order to upgrade our drinking water infrastructure.

For Pennsylvania, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its Infrastructure Report Card in 2014, and the commonwealth’s drinking water infrastructure received a “D” grade. The score for the wastewater infrastructure was even worse – D-minus.

Across Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, Pennsylvania American Water owns and maintains 1,700 feet of water main – pipe that runs under streets, beneath sidewalks and along bridges. The pipes range in size from large, 48-inch transmission mains to smaller pipes that carry water directly into customers’ homes. Although many existing pipes are 100 years or more, at the same time, Pennsylvania American Water is proactively replacing outdated pipe through its capital improvement program.

For example, we have a current project in Pittston and West Pittston where crews are replacing pipe that dates back to the 1880s.

We invest tens of millions of dollars locally and across Pennsylvania every year to replace aging infrastructure. In 2014 alone, the company invested $44 million in Luzerne and Lackawanna for water main replacement, new fire hydrants, storage tank upgrades and other capital projects to improve water service. We spend approximately $10 million to $15 million annually to install new, larger-diameter pipe to maintain reliable service for local communities.

In fact, Pennsylvania American Water replaced nearly 19 miles of aging water main locally last year, which is above the industry best practice of replacing 1 percent annually to maintain reliable water service. The goal is to replace pipe on a 100-year cycle, which closely aligns with the life expectancy of today’s pipe materials.

Keep in mind that age of pipe is one of many factors that play a role in prioritizing our annual main replacement program. Other factors include history of main breaks or service interruptions, pipe material, water-quality issues and other planned infrastructure (e.g. sewer) or road-paving projects. Despite the age of the pipe involved in the Kingston break, this main had provided decades of reliable service until this event.

Also, pipes are subject to numerous influences, such as shifting ground, winter freeze-thaw cycle, surges in water pressure, and nearby construction or other disturbances. Additionally, the 30-inch pipe in Kingston is located under a large storm water culvert, adding to the influences on the pipe.

We thank customers for their patience and cooperation during the recent outage and boil water advisory. By making proactive capital improvements, Pennsylvania American Water is working to eliminate these difficult situations as much as possible.

Unfortunately, water infrastructure is often considered “out of sight, out of mind.” As the Times Leader pointed out, recent events have raised awareness of how much we depend on these vital water systems. Let’s work together to ensure the focus doesn’t fade away.


Kathy L. Pape

Contributing Columnist

Kathy L. Pape is president and CEO of Pennsylvania American Water.