aging water infrastructure

Around the Water Cooler: Avoiding that Sinking Feeling

By Aaron Ferster

Crews work to fix DC's aging water infrastructure.

Crews work to fix DC’s aging water infrastructure.

As if Washington, DC commuters didn’t face enough challenges navigating to and from work, those who travel by car were confronted with a new one late last week: a giant sinkhole began to consume 14th Street, a key route connecting downtown with bridges and major highways just beyond.

Located only a few blocks from the White House, the crevasse grew to some 15-feet across, leading authorities to close the road in both directions for days. (As I write this, only the south-bound lanes had re-opened.)

Since its appearance, the sinkhole and its aftermath have dominated traffic reports and drawn a steady stream of curious onlookers from nearby office buildings and surrounding neighborhood tourist spots. The ever expanding meme has even sparked a Twitter account (@14thStSinkhole), ripe with parody. (As a frequent bike commuter, my favorite interaction: “I am the stuff of dreams!! RT @hellbucci: Had a dream that as I biked to work, I fell into the @14thStSinkhole. Not cool sinkhole.”)

But all joking aside, sinkholes and other symptoms of our aging water infrastructure are serious business. This particular incident apparently evolved from an ill-placed storm drain, which clogged and sent rainwater free-flowing under the street where it eroded the underlying ground and destroyed a 54-inch brick sewer line built in the 1800s.

According to a D.C. Sewer and Water Authority news release, the already complex repairs were made more difficult due to a number of utility lines and old, buried trolley tracks under the street. A hidden hole for entry from the street, identified on DC Water records, was eventually located eight feet below the surface of the road, paved over many times through the years.

Such challenges related to the nation’s aging water infrastructure are nothing new to EPA engineers and scientists who are working to identify critical research needs and develop, test, and demonstrate innovative technologies to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of existing or new water infrastructure.

As reported by fellow blogger Sarah Blau (see Is Your Toilet Leaking), “EPA researchers are looking at ways to assess water infrastructure for leaks without disrupting water supply for consumers (i.e. avoiding water shut-offs or pipe excavations). Other research is focused on preventing leaks from occurring, specifically by examining the relationship between water chemistry and plumbing life expectancy.”

To learn more, visit EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research webpage. You can also read about a specific research project exploring pinhole leaks in copper pipes (“Problems with Pinhole Leaks in Your Copper Water Pipes”) in our Science Matters newsletter. It’s all part of our effort to share how EPA researchers are working to solve all sorts of problems—and I can guarantee that you’ll find the reading a lot cooler than riding your bicycle into a sinkhole!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster dodges sinkholes and other obstacles to and from his job as an EPA science writer, where he edits the It All Starts with Science blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: Is Your Toilet Leaking?

By Sarah Blau

WHAT IS THAT NOISE?!? When I first moved into my apartment, I noticed a strange and persistent noise coming from the bathroom. On an exploratory mission, I fumbled around the various fixtures and plumbing only to discover that my toilet was leaking! Luckily, I caught the leak early and got it fixed.

Surprisingly, a leak like mine could waste up to 200 gallons of water a day! My water bill alone would have given me palpitations, let alone the knowledge that I was so carelessly wasting one of our very precious resources.

It's Fix a Leak Week!

Stories like mine are the reason this week is “Fix a Leak Week,” sponsored by WaterSense, an EPA Partnership Program. EPA and others are working to raise awareness about water leaks, to provide tips and information to water users, and ultimately, to reduce the waste of this life-sustaining resource. The WaterSense website provides some shocking statistics about the amount of water actually wasted each year as well as how you yourself can check for and fix household leaks.

Water lost to leaky plumbing is not isolated to inside homes and buildings. The aging water infrastructure of our country is awash with leakage problems as well. In fact, just this past Monday a water main break near Washington DC, spewed an estimated 60 million gallons, depleting local water storage tanks and initiating water conservation efforts for the neighboring communities!

EPA scientists are addressing this leakage problem this week and year-round. Researchers are working on new tools and methods to identify and monitor the weak points of aging water distribution systems. For example, researchers are looking at ways to assess water infrastructure for leaks without disrupting water supply for consumers (i.e. avoiding water shut-offs or pipe excavations). Other research is focused on preventing leaks from occurring, specifically, by examining the relationship between water chemistry and plumbing life expectancy.

As for me, I see Fix a Leak Week as a good reminder that our water resources are limited and we should work to conserve what we’ve got. Since my leak’s been fixed already, I’ll instead resolve to take shorter showers, turn off the tap while brushing my teeth, and work to spread the word by blogging (check mark that one!).

To learn more about this ongoing research, visit EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research webpage, and read about one specific research project in the Science Matters newsletter: Problems with Pinhole Leaks in Your Copper Water Pipes.

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.