When a car crashed into a fire hydrant on Feb. 11 in Swansea, a backup mechanism immediately shut off the water, but the pressure in the transmission line was too much. The force built up immediately, rumbled like a home washing machine shutting off, and blew a hole in the 2-foot-diameter pipe where the pipe from the hydrant connected underground.
The damage to the transmission line — the largest kind of water main — led Illinois American Water Co. to issue a boil order that lasted 18 hours for Belleville, Swansea, Shiloh and parts of Fairview Heights.
Most water main breaks aren’t as serious as that one, but the one in Swansea was the most recent in hundreds of water-main breaks that occur annually in the metro-east.
According to Illinois American, which provides water to much of the metro-east:
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▪ There were an average of 676 breaks each year from 2001 to 2005.
▪ There were 608 on average from 2006 and 2010.
▪ And from 2011 to 2015, there were an average 537 water main breaks per year.
Most of these breaks were smaller compared with the Swansea incident, and the accompanying boil orders were confined to less area.
When people think of an aging water infrastructure, they often first look to the age of the underground pipes. Many of America’s water pipes were laid after World War II, according to the American Water Works Association, a professional organization devoted to drinking water education.
Designed to last 100 years, the time to replace many of them is coming soon, the Kansas City Star reports.
“Much of the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life,” said Karen Cotton, a representative for Illinois American Water.
But age isn’t the only factor. Cotton said there are many reasons why pipes burst, including how big they are, the materials they were made from, water pressure, shifting soil and temperature.
Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers, a membership society whose mission is to “provide essential value to our members and partners, advance civil engineering, and serve the public good,” grades America’s infrastructure. In 2014, it gave Illinois’ drinking water infrastructure a C-minus.
And that was an improvement. Just four years earlier, 12 million people in Illinois were drinking from pipes that graded out at a D-plus.
Much of the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life.
Karen Cotton, Illinois American
Panning Illinois’ ability to supply fresh water, the engineering society wrote that the state’s “drinking water systems are not highly resilient and lack the capabilities to prevent failure and properly maintain or reconstitute services.” Despite that, the organization reports that the “quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high.”
According to the society, the state “needs approximately $6.5 billion to meet its current needs and another $17 billion over the next 20 years to repair, replace and upgrade” the drinking-water systems in Illinois, but deciding who should pay for it makes the issue difficult to swallow.
“The lack of consensus on who should pay for water and wastewater infrastructure makes it difficult to build sustainable water and wastewater systems,” the society’s report states.
For example, O’Fallon, Millstadt and Scott Air Force Base own and maintain their own water pipes and just buy their water supply from Illinois American. The infrastructure in many other cities, including Belleville and Swansea, is owned and operated by Illinois American.
The total cost of replacing a main ranges from $100 to $350 per foot, Cotton wrote. Money for improvements is built into customers’ monthly bills, but first needs regulatory approval.
Illinois American manages 1,100 miles of water-main pipes in the metro-east, many of which were installed about 40-60 years ago, Cotton said.
Last year, the utility company replaced 13 miles of pipes, including 2.4 miles in Belleville and Swansea, and 1.6 miles in Granite City. The utility plans to replace nine more miles in 2016.
Illinois American plans to install 45 miles of pipes altogether between October 2013 and the end of 2017, according to Cotton, but she didn’t say whether the utility is replacing the pipes faster than they are expiring.
All told, Illinois American, which does not provide maps of where water mains are located for security reasons, is also replacing and installing valves, meters and fire hydrants, Cotton said, as well as investing in its water treatment plants in East St. Louis and Granite City to the tune of $88 million.
Luckily, like many water-main breaks, Swansea’s was fixed within hours, though transmission lines can often demand larger repairs that take more time, and boil orders have been known to last for days.
In Swansea on Feb. 11, Illinois American set up a work zone and detoured traffic. Workers found the exact location of the break and closed off the valves at either end of the line, and then dug a trench and began making the latest repairs.
All in a day’s, month’s and year’s work.