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America's aging water infrastructure raises safety concerns

ATLANTA - There were unexpected showers outside Boston on Saturday. A ruptured water main in Brookline sent a plume of water 80 feet into the air. The break occurred just blocks away from a reservoir.

Saturday's break is only the latest in a series of mishaps - some far more serious - that are raising questions about the safety of aging water systems in this country.

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A ruptured water main in Brookline, Mass., sent a plume of water 80 feet into the air.
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Atlanta's water needs in 2014 rely on a system designed in 1875, and built piecemeal ever since.

"Our water treatment plant, for example, was built in 1893. So our pipes that are part of that drinking water system were also built in 1893," said Jo Ann Macrina, Atlanta's watershed commissioner.

"Some of those pipes are still made out of wood and those pipes are being replaced as time goes on," she said. "We always have to try to be ahead of the game and project out what we need to replace and also make sure we know how to respond in cases of emergencies."

Decrepit water lines can fail. The one that ruptured in Los Angeles last week was installed in 1921. Then there's the risk from outside contaminants, such as the algae toxins in Lake Erie, and a chemical spill in West Virginia last January. It left 300,000 people without drinking water for 10 days.

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Atlanta's water needs in 2014 rely on a system designed in 1875, and built piecemeal ever since.
CBS News

The American Society of Civil Engineers last year studied America's drinking and wastewater infrastructure, from its capacity and overall condition to public safety, and gave it a grade of "D."

A top priority is replacing decrepit pipes, which helps keep out contaminants from rivers and lakes.

"It's one of those things that's out of sight, out of mind," said Mae Wu, who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

"The estimates are that we need at least $16 billion every year just to maintain and replace the pipes," she said.

Atlanta has 1,600 miles of pipe, and needs to repair or replace 10 percent of them in the next five years.

The city's new $350 million water project includes expanding its emergency water supply by another 30 days.

Right now, Atlanta's emergency supply would only last three to five days.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.