Many Big Cities Don’t Know Where Their Water Pipes Are, GAO Finds

Only 12 of America’s 100 largest water systems share information about the pipe that connects the water main to homes, despite federal officials recommending more transparency.

While some large systems—such as those in Boston and Cincinnati—publicly disclose their data, many don’t. A Sept. 21 report from the Government Accountability Office analyzing the websites of the systems found that few disclose the data, leaving residents and regulators in the dark.

The study was a followup to see how states are responding to a nationwide 2016 Environmental Protection Agency request to post the pipes’ data online as a follow-up to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Forty-three states said they would provide data, but 39 reported to EPA that although they had encouraged water systems to publicize inventories, few had done that, the GAO report said.

“The information is buried, literally,” said Eric Schwartz, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan and one of the lead researchers on the data team tracking down Flint’s pipes.

“It may be on handwritten records of historical construction from the early to mid 20th century,” Schwartz added. “Those old city records may not have been updated. And likely they are incomplete. Worse, it is expensive to fully and accurately inspect the material of a service line.”

Information Pipeline

Many water systems don’t know exactly where the pipes are.

Six of the 10 U.S. EPA regional offices told GAO researchers that states reported a lack of records addressing the locations of the lines. Sometimes those records exist, but are old and difficult to manage.

That was a problem in Flint, where untreated water from the Flint River went through lead service lines into peoples’ homes, exposing citizens to high levels of lead. A team of University of Michigan researchers compiled enormous amounts of public records data to isolate areas where the pipes likely are, and the city is on its way to replacing them all.

The GAO said other governments are concerned about the economic impact of this data. Seven U.S. EPA regional offices told GAO researchers that states were concerned posting information about lead service lines would harm private property values.

The agency recommended, and the EPA agreed, that more needs to be done to communicate successful approaches that states and water systems have used to identify and publicize locations of lead service lines.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com