The History of Water Infrastructure

It simmers and steams and doesn’t boil when watched.

It fills up bathtubs to the brim, sloshing back and forth.

It finds itself accompanying your nightly dinner in a glass filled with ice.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of water in our everyday lives; we need it and we thrive upon it. But it’s even easier to forget the leaps and bounds necessary to get it in your faucet today. It wasn’t always this simple. Here’s a brief timeline of how water become accessible to you:

 

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that simple, but those are some pretty key events that built the water infrastructure needed for the way we use water today. Here’s some more information about those milestones.

Ancient Rome:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, which meant innovation for even the most basic of necessities could take a staggering amount of time. Technology seemed to move a little faster once the first aqueducts were built to transport water. This step in early innovation that culminated in Early Rome soon took off throughout Europe. It was the most advanced plumbing system of its day.

 

Enlightenment Era:

After a more advanced plumbing system was introduced during the Enlightenment Era, it became a priority to provide sanitary water to the increasing population. Shortly after, it was necessary to bring in private water companies to account for the overwhelming amount of people. Water filtration was in its early experimental stages and used sand filters to take care of sanitation.

1900’s:

However, in the early 1900’s, filters were no longer used after a faulty mishap, which caused a disease outbreak. Instead, chlorination became the new way to provide clean water. While the process has been tweaked throughout history, it remains to be the fundamental way we purify water as of today. 

Today:

Other techniques such as water fluoridation and desalination are also used in certain areas of the world to provide safer water. Laws surrounding water began to pick up speed as the need for regulation became imperative. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, placing an emphasis on the quality of the water that is consumed, and it’s still enforced today.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to continue the trend to healthier and safer water. The Ancient Romans knew this and were able to overcome many logistical boundaries. But, there is still more to be done in both conservation and availability. The infrastructure of water is rapidly changing and progressing, which is integral when it comes to nurturing one of our most valuable natural resources.

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Diving In: Touring the Ashtabula Bunker Tank

The light-gray interior of the steel cylinder warped and echoed the near whispers of James Parker and Joseph Flahiff as they stood in a shaft of a daylight squeezed through a port hole far above their hard hats.

They were inside one of the city’s best-kept secrets, a structure whose interior rarely receives a human visitor. Surrounded by trees and a high fence, only neighbors and astute drivers know of the water tank, which has been off-line for the past month while interior restoration work was performed by Tank Industries Consultants of Indianapolis.

Parker, inspector with the company, and Flahiff, production manager for the tank’s owner, Aqua Ohio, opened the tank to a media tour. It was a rare chance to crawl inside a time capsule of sorts; the interior was last painted in the 1980s, although there have been periodic inspections that required human intrusion. 

Last year, two inspectors entered the tank from an access port and, using an inflatable raft, inspected the top section of the interior. The inspection was necessary to obtain a cost estimate for the interior painting job ordered by Aqua Ohio as part of its wide-reaching plan to upgrade the Ashtabula water system.

With the tank work nearly complete, Flahiff and Parker proudly showed off the fresh paint job as if they were unveiling a commissioned work of art. 

Repairs were made, the corrosion sandblasted away and an inert coating certified safe for potable water applied. Flahiff said coatings have improved greatly in the past 30 years, and the modern paint will do a better job of protecting the water supply.

The project is part of a major reinvestment plan to improve the area’s water treatment and distribution system. Aqua spent $1.4 million replacing pipe, valves and hydrants last year. Another $300,000 went into the chemical building at the treatment plant and $800,000 went for exterior painting and structural rehabilitation of the Bunker Hill tank.

All of the tanks provide a reserve of water and help maintain consistent pressure at faucets across the system, from a spacious Tudor on Bunker Hill to a bungalow on Lake Erie, where the water we take for granted begins and ends its journey. 

For more:

Where Few Have Gone by Shelley Terry and Carl Feather

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Drink Up: Here’s to Spring!

After a long winter of snow, sleet, rain and polar vortexes, we bid adieu to the winter of 2013-14 by raising a glass of iced cold tap water during Drinking Water Week. The winter weather wreaked havoc on much of the country and did a number on water mains across the country too. But thanks to Aqua’s commitment to infrastructure renewal and putting miles of new water mains in the ground, we’ve had fewer main breaks than in the past thanks. Get a taste of what it was like on the front lines with a breakdown of Aqua’s fight against winter weather in Southeastern PA: 

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Aqua Delivers New, Clean Water Supply to Families in Wake Forest

Aqua North Carolina turned on the tap last year to provide clean drinking water to two dozen homes in a Wake Forest neighborhood where homeowners’ private wells were found to be contaminated by solvents. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached out to Aqua to connect these homes to our public drinking water supply, and we expect to connect additional homes. 

In 2005, a homeowner’s private well was first identified as having been contaminated with a volatile organic compound (VOC) called TCE. Since then, additional private wells in the area were found to have been contaminated. Federal and state environmental officials believe two former circuit board assembly companies are the source of the contamination.

Aqua is proud that we could help these families get water that is regularly tested and complies with state and federal health standards. This situation underscores the benefits to customers of public water systems like Aqua’s. Unlike private well owners, Aqua must adhere to federal and state laws that require consistent and frequent tests for contaminants.

Aqua has been providing water and wastewater utility service in North Carolina for more than 30 years and serves about 84,000 homes in 52 counties.

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Ebb and Flow: Managing the Aging Water Infrastructure

All across America we have uninhibited access to clean and safe water. We often take this for granted because it is so accessible. Think of all the things you and your family use water for each and every day.

At the end of the day, it is estimated that the average American family uses 300 gallons of water at the cost of just one penny per gallon. Our water infrastructure is what makes all of this possible. However, it’s quickly becoming clear that our infrastructure is headed for trouble.

Most underground water pipes are expected to last up to 100 years. Unfortunately, America has over 700,000 miles of aging water pipes, including many of which are still in service well beyond their useful life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes the necessary repairs to these water pipes are projected to cost $384 billion. Funding these repairs is complicated by the fact that the water industry is the most fragmented within our nation’s utility industry.

 

Currently we have 53,000 individual water systems that serve relatively small populations. The EPA found that more than 83 percent of them supply fewer than 3,300 people. Municipalities own the majority of these systems, but nearly 15 percent are privately owned. Both types of water system owners struggle to maintain their systems due to tight budgets and limited resources. Many of these water systems are falling behind because they cannot afford upgrades and/or they don’t have the resources to meet the increasingly rigid environmental and health regulations.

The good news is there are at least two solutions that can help get our water infrastructure where it needs to be. One such solution is a public-private partnership (PPP). Through this type of partnership, private funds are more readily available to municipalities to update infrastructure and invest in improvements and renovations to their aging water systems. Even better, the funds brought in through a PPP benefit more than just the water companies and consumers.

For example, the municipality of West Chester, PA entered a PPP back in 1996 when they were faced with needing to drastically increase water rates to afford a $15 million upgrade. They sold their system for $25 million and used the revenue to make the necessary upgrade, as well as retire existing debt and fund a desperately needed parking garage.

The second possible solution is an operations and maintenance (O&M) contract. An O&M contract focuses more on the day-to-day required maintenance of water systems. The private entity in this contract takes on routine tasks necessary to operate and maintain the utility in exchange for a service fee. One continuing success story is in Horsham, PA. The Horsham Water Authority began an O&M contract in 1997 that they have renewed annually since then. They’ve also expanded it to include additional services like water treatment, meter operations and system maintenance and repairs.

Maintaining clean and safe water is not just a goal, it’s a necessity. However, the government cannot bear all the costs of making these necessary repairs, nor should it have to. Teaming up with private water companies will save our infrastructure and keep clean water flowing to our taps. 

More Information: 

Keep It Flowing: Maintaining Municipal Water Systems

More PPP success stories here

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