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The hamlet of Kerhonkson, in the rural Ulster County town of Wawarsing, recently received a federal grant of $1.5 million to tear out and replace a few miles’ worth of aging water pipes made of cast iron and asbestos cement. With just a few hundred households in the water district, the 2019 grant is investing thousands of dollars for every person that drinks from the taps of the Kerhonkson Water and Sewer District. Of course, Kerhonkson’s water system problems are far beyond the capacity of the town of Wawarsing, or the revenue collected by local taxpayers and water customers, to fix.
If Kerhonkson were an isolated case, the tremendous costs of upgrading the system wouldn’t be so worrisome. But water systems that are degrading, relying on contaminated or depleted sources or riddled with unsafe materials, are the norm, not the exception. All across the nation, water districts large and small are quietly accumulating decay and increasingly failing. In a few cases, like the notorious poisoning of the people of Flint, Michigan by lead in outdated pipes, the issue rises to national attention. But mostly, water system problems are a quiet—and local—crisis.
To ensure that the nation has access to safe drinking water, local water managers across the United States will have to pick up the pace. Old drinking water pipes are being replaced at an average of 0.5 percent per year in the US, according to the latest Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—a rate that would take 200 years to get to every pipe in a network whose branches have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, and much of which is approaching (or past) its expiration date.
At particular risk are the smallest systems, like Kerhonkson’s, that have neither the technical expertise nor the critical mass to handle their own problems without significant help from higher levels of government. Still, one thing is certain: Kerhonkson is lucky. Unlike other rural water districts, problems have not advanced so far that people can no longer drink out of their own taps.
Read more about water infrastructure issues in the Hudson Valley.