Winter water woes worsen ... but why? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Winter water woes worsen ... but why?

Winter in the Chicago region brings with it certain weather-related hassles, such as salt stains, sore throats, and cancelled flights.  The short days and frigid gales off the lake aren't much fun either.   

Plummeting temperatures also wreak havoc on local infrastructure, often causing a rise in water main breaks – which cause their own set of problems, including:

Damage to personal property,

Traffic tie-ups and road closures,

Sinkholes, potholes, and depending on your persepctive, budget holes,

Poor conditions for pedestrians and shoppers, and

Poor water quality.

All of these stories are just from the last few months, and all point to the immense strain on our physical infrastructure.  Chicago alone has around 4,230 miles of water mains, many of which were installed between 1890 and 1930 and are used beyond capacity. 

Even on a warm summer day these pipes suffer from decades of wear and tear. Add frigid temperatures and water's irritating property of expanding as it freezes, and you get a rash of main breaks and the occasional urban geyser.

Main breaks are the most visible sign of infrastructure deterioration, but hardly the most pervasive.  Constant leaks in public water systems are a drain on water, energy and budget resources.  A water system that loses "only" 10 percent of its load to leakage is considered exemplary.  If every time you went grocery shopping you managed to lose 10 percent of your food on the trip home, you'd be pretty upset and do something about it.

Part of the problem is a lack of revenue — too often infrastructure repair costs are not accounted for in water rates, and so communities simply have no money to fix pipes.  That mounts over time, and now water consumers in 2010 are saddled with repairs that were needed in 1980. 

As with dental cleanings, oil changes, and consistent cardiovascular exercise, regular maintenance of our water distribution systems can stave off unpredictable emergencies.  We fight off cavities, engine failure, and heart attacks through consistent investment and pro-active behavior ... so why don't we do the same thing with our water supplies?

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