NATIONAL NEWS

Trillions of gallons leak from aging drinking water systems, further stressing shrinking US cities

Mar 4, 2024, 6:39 AM

PRICHARD, Ala. (AP) — Water bubbles up in streets, pooling in neighborhoods for weeks or months. Homes burn to the ground if firefighters can’t draw enough water from hydrants. Utility crews struggle to fix broken pipes while water flows through shut-off valves that don’t work.

For generations, the water infrastructure beneath this southern Alabama city was corroding, cracking and failing — out of sight and seemingly out of mind — as the population shrank and poverty rose. Until it became impossible to ignore.

Last year residents learned a startling truth: Prichard loses over half, sometimes more than 60%, of the drinking water it buys from nearby Mobile, according to a state environmental report that said “the state of disrepair of Prichard’s water lines cannot be overstated.” Residents and experts say it also imposes a crippling financial burden on one of the state’s poorest cities, where more than 30% live in poverty.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation,” said community activist Carletta Davis, recounting how residents have been shocked by monthly water bills totaling hundreds or thousands of dollars. “I see people struggling with whether or not they have to pay their water bills or whether or not they can buy food or whether or not they can get their medicine.”

Prichard’s situation is dire, but hardly unique.

Across the U.S., trillions of gallons of drinking water are lost every year, especially from decrepit systems in communities struggling with significant population loss and industrial decline that leave behind poorer residents, vacant neighborhoods and too-large water systems that are difficult to maintain.

Jackson, Mississippi, was already losing an estimated 65% of its water — including millions of gallons that had been gushing from broken pipes for years, turning some areas into wetlands — when the system almost collapsed in 2022, said Ted Henifin, the water system’s federally appointed third-party manager.

Many communities — especially older industrial and rural areas in the eastern half of the country — are facing a similar economic and public health reckoning after decades of deferred maintenance and disinvestment, experts say.

In the Detroit enclave of Highland Park, where the population halved in the past 20 years and is 83% smaller than its 1930s heyday, an estimated 70% of the water is lost from pipes up to 120 years old. Several Chicago suburbs likely are losing more than 40% of water. And some Georgia systems are losing more than 80% of their treated drinking water, said Sunil Sinha, a water researcher at Virginia Tech.

A January cold snap caused water line breaks in dozens of communities where aging infrastructure could no longer withstand freezing temperatures, including Memphis, Tennessee, and an Arkansas town that had no water for two weeks. But systems crack and leak year-round as time and neglect take a toll.

Yet water loss has drawn less public scrutiny than issues like lead service lines and overflowing sewer systems, although it also has significant consequences: Communities buy or treat far more water than they otherwise would, passing costs to customers; water in oversized systems moves more slowly and can become stagnant, requiring lines to be flushed to prevent bacteria buildup, which wastes more water; and loss of pressure from pipe breaks can allow contamination to enter the system.

“The waste and cost to ratepayers if you’re losing 50 or 60 percent of your water, it’s enough to make your blood boil,” said Eric Oswald, director of the drinking water division at Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. He said Michigan communities large and small are losing significant amounts of water, mainly tied to industry and population loss.

Experts say needed investment often is deferred because raising water rates to fix systems is politically unpopular, but also because it’s difficult to borrow money and poorer communities often have to spend scarce resources on other needs, such as fire protection and police.

“If the choice is building a school or putting in a transmission main, you build a school,” said John C. Young, a former water executive who helped manage Flint, Michigan’s recovery efforts after its lead-contaminated water crisis. He recently was appointed to oversee the beleaguered Prichard water and sewer department — already shaken by an embezzlement scandal — after it was sued by a bank for defaulting on a $55 million loan.

Struggling cities, Young said, are “kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

LACK OF DATA

Lisa McGuire picked her way past charred remains of the home where she and her husband, Tony McGuire, spent 28 years, pointing out where the living room, bathroom and kitchen once stood.

She rushed home from the hospital where she was visiting her husband last April after a neighbor called her about the fire. She found Prichard firefighters standing there, an empty hose attached to a hydrant. They eventually got water from a hydrant down the street, McGuire and neighbors said, but it was too late.

“I lost everything,” including two dogs that were trapped in the house and now are buried under a tree in the backyard, McGuire said, wiping away tears. “I want to come back home.”

For years, water problems in the neighborhood, called Alabama Village, were obvious, especially when children waded through standing water on their way to school or when water pressure was too low to take a shower, residents say.

Last year, reports from an engineering firm and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said almost one-fifth of Prichard’s water loss was in Alabama Village, which once had more than a hundred homes but now only has three dozen.

But the city still doesn’t know precisely where the rest of the water is being lost.

In fact, many cities, towns and states don’t know exactly how much water disappears after being treated, or why. It’s called “nonrevenue water” because it’s not being billed, including water used for firefighting and filling municipal swimming pools — or when meters fail or residents and businesses connect illegally. But in many older towns, like Prichard, most lost water is probably leaking from the system, said Young, the court-appointed receiver.

There is no comprehensive accounting of water loss nationally, and no federal regulations requiring communities to control it, said Sinha, the Virginia Tech researcher, who is working with the U.S. Geological Survey on a study to quantify the scope of the nation’s water loss.

About a dozen states require water systems to report losses, including Georgia, where some communities report losses of 85% or more, Sinha said. At first, he thought there had been a mistake, but “Georgia (environmental officials) said, ‘No, that is real.’”

Even smaller losses should be unacceptable, said Sinha, noting some communities that draw and treat their own water don’t regard losses as an emergency because it’s cheaper than fixing leaks. Limiting losses to 10% should be the goal, he said.

“If you are losing 30%, 40% or 50% … why (is it not) shocking?” he said. “I mean, what kind of society is it?”

In Illinois, communities getting water from Lake Michigan are required to annually report use and loss, but the state has no certified records after 2017, when several places reported significant levels of nonrevenue water — up to 52% in Maywood, west of Chicago.

The state gets an annual water allotment under the Great Lakes Compact, so losses could affect whether additional communities can draw water in the future.

State officials are trying to hire staff to enforce the reporting requirement, while water loss continues to worsen in old and shrinking Chicago suburbs.

“It’s a huge problem because infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating,” said Loren Wobig, director of the office of water resources at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “It needs attention and it needs it now.”

FUNDING CHALLENGES

Yet struggling communities with the worst water systems often are at significant disadvantage when it comes to fixing problems.

They can’t rely solely on higher water rates, because shrinking population and industry leave too few customers on distribution systems built for much larger communities. Experts say those who remain usually are poorer and minority residents, who already spend a greater portion of income on water and power, meaning rate increases can trigger more water theft and population loss.

In Prichard, which has lost 60% of its peak population and where many downtown buildings are vacant, water users saw a 22% rate increase last year that hasn’t come close to generating enough revenue to run the system, let alone fix it, said Young, the receiver. He’s conducting an affordability study and established a program to assist residents struggling to pay water and sewer bills.

Adding to the challenges: Costs escalate every year that maintenance and replacement is deferred. But leaders of struggling communities say the cards have been stacked against them.

Prichard Mayor Jimmy Gardner said some loans and grants require recipients to match the funding, which would mean diverting money from other needs.

“I always tell people … follow the dollars and where they’re going and what communities they are going in, and you will find that in most states … the underserved and underrepresented communities are not getting those dollars,” Gardner said.

Cities also suffer when their bond ratings are downgraded — sometimes even when they haven’t missed payments — making it more difficult to borrow or repay money for infrastructure fixes. And some have been talked into variable interest rates that hurt them in the long run, said Saqib Bhatti, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.

“It’s really a downward spiral,” Bhatti said. “For cities where the population is shrinking and there are high rates of poverty — predominantly black and brown cities that have historically been underinvested in — it becomes really hard to actually come up with the money for those investments.”

Some communities have faced mismanagement allegations, including in Prichard, where several former Water Works and Sewer Board employees are charged with embezzling money. But the system is so precarious — with an annual operating deficit of $5 million and hundreds of millions in capital improvement needs — that the alleged corruption had almost no impact, Young said.

Despite billions in available federal and state infrastructure grants and low- and zero-interest loans, disadvantaged communities often lack staff, money or expertise to complete audits and engineering reports required of applicants. The Environmental Protection Agency has established a technical assistance program to help.

For Prichard and many other poor communities, state and federal money that doesn’t have to be repaid will be needed to supplement other measures, said Young, who plans to ask the EPA “for as much as I can get” for Prichard.

Jackson, for example, has received $600 million in federal funding. And Michigan recently brokered a proposed deal that includes $70 million to upgrade Highland Park’s water infrastructure, including replacing water mains and service lines. The city, which buys Lake Huron water, had been in a years-long dispute over $58 million in unpaid water bills.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

Angela Adams drives around potholes, past mounds of household debris and abandoned houses, and sometimes through flooded streets to reach her home of 30 years in Prichard’s Alabama Village.

She never considered leaving, even as neighbors died or moved away, roads turned from asphalt to dirt and houses were torn down or burned. Her fondest memories are here, where she raised three children and loves watching squirrels and woodpeckers in her large, fenced yard.

But now, there’s talk of seizing residents’ property and paying them to move to help stem the city’s water loss and create redevelopment opportunities. The city already has banned additional water hookups in the neighborhood, where water has been flowing from a faulty water main into the city’s sewer system, making it difficult to adequately treat waste.

“I’m at an age where I’m planning on retiring. I’m too old to go buy another house,” said Adams, 59, who said a leaky city water line flooded her back yard last year. “All I want to do is sit on my front porch, drink my coffee and mind my business like I’ve been doing.”

Advocates for moving residents include the mayor, who said it could allow the city to redevelop the area, perhaps to store shipping containers for nearby ports. Developers have expressed an interest, but “if we move someone, we need to make sure we’re placing them somewhere … where they can continue to live a wholesome life.”

The idea of moving is particularly infuriating to residents who say they were never told about the extent of water loss even as utility bills climbed, or about health risks from low water pressure, said attorney Roger Varner, who filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of city residents. They shouldn’t lose homes, some in families for generations, because of lack of investment and mismanagement, he said.

“Those are the ones who have been wronged the most because they’re saying, ‘Wait, wait. I pay my water bill, I paid off my home, I’ve got every right to be here and you’re telling me because you haven’t done your job I have to … move?’” said Varner.

Even so, Young, who now oversees Prichard’s water and sewer system, said moving residents from Alabama Village — built more than 80 years ago to house local shipyard workers — must be considered to save money and possibly generate revenue. He’s also exploring whether a private company might partner with Prichard to run the system, whether the nearby Mobile Area Water and Sewer System might take it over, or whether a treatment plant could be built so the city could draw and process its own water.

Shrinking water infrastructure is rare because of logistical challenges and because neighborhoods most likely targeted often are majority African-American areas that saw little investment, said Joseph Schilling, senior researcher at the Urban Institute.

“In places like Flint, where the whole city was traumatized by environmental injustices, it’s hard to talk about decommissioning infrastructure,” said Schilling. “When you have a long legacy of environmental injustice, racial segregation and exclusionary zoning, any new initiatives have to be done with the community.”

But struggling cities also resist talk of downsizing water systems because they hold out hope industry and residents will return, said Oswald from the Michigan environment department.

“You don’t want to cast doubt on those kinds of grandiose plans but, I mean, we’ve got systems that have 300 percent more capacity than the water they deliver,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain that, and at the end of the day it’s the poor ratepayers who wind up having to subsidize it.”

Young said fixing water infrastructure in America’s struggling cities will take much more money and won’t happen quickly.

“Because you’ve underinvested in this system for decades and decades … it’s going to take decades to bring it back,” he said.

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Follow Webber on X, formerly Twitter: @twebber02

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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