X Genesis Water & Climate

Deteriorating Water Infrastructure

How might we create resilient water infrastructure in the face of growing demand and climate change threats?

Back to All Wicked Problems

Problem Overview

The average age of water and sewage pipes in the U.S. is 45 years; in over 600 towns and cities in the U.S. the age of pipes is north of 100. These pipes--in some cases exceeding their intended life span by more than four decades--are not aging gracefully. A water main breaks in the U.S. every two minutes, resulting in a loss of 6 billion gallons per day and an estimated cost of $7.6 billion in treated water per year. Climate change worsens the conditions of aging infrastructure via an onslaught of extreme events such as storms or floods that stretch the limits of infrastructure resiliency. To combat the deluge in costs and face ongoing threats, local governments will spend an estimated $300 billion on repairing and updating water and sewage pipes in the next ten years. These figures represent the deteriorating nature of much water infrastructure locally and globally. And it’s not just pipes. Water infrastructure refers to the systems, including the workforce, the technology, and the processes related to the treatment, delivery, storage, supply, and resource management of drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater, increasing the complexity of infrastructure challenges. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave grades of C- and D+, respectively, to the entire U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure systems in its 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. As these systems continue to age, the cost of operating and maintaining them will rise, exponentially increasing the cost of deteriorating infrastructure and further opening infrastructure to the threats of climate change, including rising water demands in response to heat waves, drought, and other extreme events. Not only is water infrastructure essential to individuals and households, entire industries from healthcare to manufacturing to mining rely on water and wastewater systems to function. Without significant investments to and changes in water infrastructure within the shifting reality  of climate change, service disruptions could cost water-reliant businesses roughly $250 billion by the year 2039 and costs to U.S. households could reach seven times that of current water costs. Finally, a deteriorating water infrastructure produces a multitude of health risks, be it metal seeping into the water from aging pipes as was the case in Flint, Michigan, to waterborne diseases resulting from sewage contamination. These risks threaten familial and community health and often occur in municipalities and neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, further complicating mitigation or innovation efforts.


Focusing Question:

How might we create resilient water infrastructure in the face of growing demand and climate change threats?

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Deteriorating Water Infrastructure System Map


Contributing Factors