Heat pops pipes nationwide; brace for higher bills

Critical water pipelines are breaking from coast to coast, triggered by this summer's record high temperatures. It's not a phenomenon or coincidence, experts say. It's a clear sign that Americans should brace for more water interruptions, accompanied by skyrocketing water bills.

The heat wave of the past few weeks has burst hundreds of crucial pipes in California, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and New York, temporarily shutting off water to countless consumers just when they needed it most.

"It's one of the worst summers," said Debbie Ragan of Oklahoma City's Utilities Department. As days of 100 degree-plus temperatures bake the region, the utility reports 685 water main breaks since July alone. That's an estimated rate of four times normal. To keep up with repairs, Ragan said, workers have been putting in 12-to 16-hour shifts 24/7.

"It's the heat and the high water usage," Ragan said.

High temperatures can dry soil so that it shrinks away from buried pipes. Increased water usage raises pressure inside the water lines. Both factors add strain to pipeline walls, making older pipes more susceptible to bursting.

It underscores the fact that much of the nation's underground water lines are 80 to 100 years old -- and approaching the end of their lives.

Experts call it America's "Replacement Era," when hundreds of water utilities nationwide will be forced to replace their aging infrastructure -- or suffer the consequences.

America's Crumbling Water Infrastructure

Who will probably have to pay for those hundreds of thousands of miles of new pipelines? Utility customers, industry experts say.

Water rates ranked for 50 cities

For towns like Kemp, Texas, population 1,150, the situation reached emergency levels this week.

A historic drought throughout Texas has left Kemp with what Mayor Donald Kile described as "cracks so big in the ground, you could lose a small dog in them."

Desperate for water in Texas

Fourteen major water line breaks August 7 emptied water towers and forced Kemp to shut off water service until Tuesday, officials said.

The mayor blamed the crisis on 80-year-old pipelines and high demand as temperatures rose above 100 degrees for 37 straight days.

Texas town turns off water, leaving residents boiling mad

It's even worse in the Texas town of Robert Lee. The hellish heat has left its entire reservoir dry as a bone. Community leaders are considering trucking water in from elsewhere or laying a 12-mile pipeline to connect to water in a nearby town.

Get ready for more of the same, environmentalists say. Shifting climate change in the coming decades, they warn, will probably bring more droughts, record high temperatures and other weather conditions that will damage water infrastructure.

Texas town threatened by dried-out reservoir

Options to ensure water for small towns like these are few and expensive, ranging from building larger reservoirs to connecting their water systems to utilities in nearby areas.

"That kind of interconnection might be life-saving for that community," said Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association. But the expense of laying miles of pipe may be too much for many utilities to handle.

Town turns sewer water into drinking water

Three facts hammer home the scary status of the nation's water infrastructure:

• The nation averages about 700 water main breaks nationwide each day, according to the EPA.

• U.S. water utilities lose an average of about 10% of their water -- worth $2.8 billion per year -- through leaks and other causes, according the EPA.

• The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the water infrastructure at a D minus.

"We've gotten so good at capturing and transporting water that we've really started to take it for granted," said Alex Prud'homme, author of "The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century" about the nation's declining water infrastructure.

"We had better start looking ahead and repairing our water infrastructure, because with the pressure from climate change, population growth, shifting demographics and the way we use water, the problem is only going to get worse rather than better."

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CNN,"Heat pops pipes nationwide; brace for higher bills",by Thom Patterson, accessed August 16, 2011

WJBF, "Vaucluse, Graniteville Customers See Water Bills Skyrocket 700%", accessed August 16, 2011


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