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Aging of Water Mains Is Becoming Hard to Ignore

Michael Cooper, The New York Times on April 17, 2009

CHELAN, Wash. -- It has been 2,000 years since the Romans built their aqueducts, and 200 years since Philadelphia began using castiron water mains. But the 6-inch-wide city pipe that still delivers drinking water to a block on Nixon Street here uses an even more primitive technology: wood.

Its wooden planks are lashed together with a coil of metal as if each section of pipe were a long, narrow barrel. And while the small stretch beneath the ground here may seem more Swiss Family Robinson than 21st century, it is not unique to Chelan.

Water officials say they believe that a handful of wooden water mains are still in use in South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, among other places. The old wood pipes offer a vivid reminder of the age and fragility of the nation’s drinking water systems, many of which rely heavily on old pipes that often remain out of sight and mind -- until they burst.

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