WASHINGTON - At first glance, the pizza-size hole that popped open when a heavy truck passed over a freshly paved Washington street seemed fairly minor.
Then city inspectors got on their bellies with a flashlight to peer into it. What they discovered has become far too common: A massive 19th-century brick sewer had silently eroded away, leaving a cavern beneath a street that could have swallowed most of a city bus.
It took three weeks and about $1 million to repair the sewer, built in 1889.
Time and wear “had torn off all the bricks and sent them God knows where,’’ said George Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. “We have to find them and see if they’re plugging up the system somewhere farther down the line.’’
If it were not buried underground, the water and sewer system that serves the nation’s capital could be an advertisement for Band-Aids. And it is not much different from any other major system in the country.
Although they are out of sight and out of mind except when they spring a leak, water and sewer systems are more vital to civilized society than any other aspect of infrastructure.
Rapidly deteriorating roads and bridges could stifle America’s economy and turn transportation headaches into nightmares, but if the nation’s water and sewer systems begin to fail, life as we know it will, too.
Without an ample supply of water, people don’t drink, toilets don’t flush, factories don’t operate, offices shut down, and fires go unchecked. When sewage systems fail, cities can’t function, and epidemics break out.
“All the big cities have these problems, and to me it’s the unseen catastrophe,’’ Hawkins said. “At least with bridges or a road, people have some idea of what it is because they drive on them and see them. “
And just like roads and bridges, the vast majority of the country’s water systems are in urgent need of repair and replacement. At a recent Senate hearing, it was estimated that, on average, 25 percent of drinking water leaks from water system pipes before reaching the faucet. The same committee was told it will take $335 billion to resurrect water systems and $300 billion to fix sewer systems.
The gargantuan numbers tossed around during December’s Senate hearing as the cost of saving the country’s water and sewage systems have no more promise of connecting with the public than has the $7 trillion that transportation experts say should be spent to resurrect roads, bridges, aviation, and transit in the next decade.
About $9.4 billion more per year is needed for water and sewer work between now and 2020, according to a study released last month by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Without that investment, many Americans should prepare for regular disruption of water service and a jump in contamination caused by sewage bacteria, the study said.
The price of water, always far below such commodities as electricity and gasoline, can be expected to rise dramatically as the demand taxes the systems that deliver it, analysts said.
Nationwide, an estimated 1.7 trillion gallons of water leaks from pipes each year before it can be put to use. About 900 billion gallons of raw sewage flows into waterways.
Those leaks and untreated flushes aren’t just a problem in creaking Eastern cities that date to Colonial times. Oklahoma, which didn’t become a state until the 20th century, has estimated it needs to invest $82 billion in water and sewer infrastructure during the next 50 years.
“I remember when they used to consider us out in the newer states like Oklahoma as not having the infrastructure problems of older states,’’ Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said, “but that’s not true anymore.’’
“People count on turning on the faucet and having clean water come out,’’ said Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee on water. “Our nation’s water infrastructure is reaching a tipping point.’’
But with the economy sputtering and Congress eager to slash a burgeoning deficit, selling Americans on the need to pay billions more in water bills or taxes to salvage a system they didn’t even know was breaking might be impossible.
“The customer base really doesn’t know,’’ Hawkins said. “Like when I turn on the faucet, what on Earth is needed to deliver that water? It’s like magic. And then it goes down the drain. It’s like magic again.’’