Jun 06, 2017

The Cost of Change

It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when wood pipe was at the forefront of water technology. Cities on the East Coast utilized wood pipe to create water systems to support their burgeoning populations in the early days of the U.S. Although technology has since advanced and water infrastructure has been upgraded over the years, some of that wood pipe is still buried beneath those city streets.

In May, Philadelphia utility workers unearthed sections of wood pipe that were part of the city’s early ventures into water infrastructure, the Washington Post reported. Installed in 1812, the pipe was part of a then-cutting edge system designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol Building. The scheme involved two steam engines, which pumped water from the Schuylkill River to wooden tanks in the Centre Square Water Works. Gravity then propelled the water through the wood pipe network. Residents could get water from public standpipes for free, or connect to faucets in their yards or kitchens for a fee.

Two decades later, Philadelphia replaced the wood pipe with cast iron pipe. The wood pipe was discovered as the city undertook another infrastructure upgrade that was surely overdue: replacing the cast iron pipe with ductile iron pipe.

The messages here are twofold. First, like Philadelphia, water infrastructure in cities across the U.S. is in need of upgrades to keep up with modern technology and provide safe drinking water.

Second, when it comes to infrastructure funding, the more things change, the more they stay the same. According to the Washington Post report, newspapers from the early 1800s were filled with complaints about the water infrastructure project’s cost. (The report did not indicate how the system was funded.)

In modern times, funding infrastructure improvements continues to be a challenge. The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) provides cities an option for funding. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began soliciting letters of interest for WIFIA loans in January. According to the American Water Works Assn., 43 entities had expressed interest by early May.

EPA estimates the $20 million appropriated for WIFIA’s first year will provide $1 billion in credit assistance and finance more than $2 billion in water infrastructure investment. The omnibus spending bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump in May, included an additional $10 million for WIFIA.

Cost is the key factor in any infrastructure improvement project. With so many cities in desperate need of upgrades, it is crucial for the federal government to continue to prioritize water infrastructure in the coming years.

About the author

Kate Ferguson, editor-in-chief, [email protected]

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