Water and sewer pipe issues can't be out of sight, out of mind

Joe Nichols Jun 18, 2017

This op-ed appeared in the Newark Advocate.

Those of you who are tired of getting jarred by potholes on your way to the grocery probably welcomed promises of increased federal infrastructure spending with open arms.

Many of those federal dollars flow back to our communities for us to decide how to spend, so it’s important to remember that infrastructure goes deeper than roads and bridges — literally. You probably see crumbling roads daily; what you don’t see are the miles of water and wastewater pipes lying underground that are also in need of replacement.

Although this critical infrastructure is out of sight, it can’t be out of mind. Most of us don’t think about water and sewer pipes until something goes wrong — as we saw tragically happen to the people of Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio. That’s unfortunate, because although we rely on these pipes constantly for clean water and modern sanitation, much of the pipe in Ohio is on its last legs.

The cost of these replacements will impact your family’s monthly water and sewer bill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $27 billion worth of these pipes will need replaced or installed in Ohio by 2031 — approximately $6,000 per household — so it’s critical that the job gets done right the first time.

To ensure things go smoothly, lawmakers should keep two things in mind: accountability and competition.

Water and sewer projects are often financed by a mix of your federal, state, and local tax dollars, but specific decisions like what pipe materials to use are typically made by your local officials like city councils and engineers — and rightly so. As local residents, you have far more influence with how your city council spends your tax dollars than with state or federal officials, which gives those local officials a stronger incentive to hear out your concerns before making important decisions.

To ensure the most sensible pipe material is chosen for your community, local governments need to allow for healthy, transparent competition to replace existing pipes. This will help keep down costs. Iron, plastic, steel, concrete, and even clay all are used for water and wastewater piping. Each of these materials has its pros and cons — some materials may be more expensive up-front but save money over the long-term due to their durability. Factors such as the load that the pipe will need to carry and soil conditions can influence the choice of materials. These decisions are best left in the hands of local engineers and city councils who are most familiar with local conditions.

History has shown that local accountability and competition give us the best services for the lowest cost. As local governments across Ohio take on the multi-billion-dollar task of replacing water and wastewater pipes, they should adhere to these principles. As we recently learned from the Flint and Sebring crises, letting water and sewer infrastructure remain “out of sight, out of mind” can be a costly mistake.

Joe Nichols is a Newark Township resident and policy analyst at The Buckeye Institute.