Making Infrastructure Investments Last: Why Prescott Voted To Ban Plastic Drinking Water Pipes

By Cathey Rusing

There are few things in life that are certain, but one of them here in my hometown of Prescott, AZ is the fact that most of our buildings are built on hard rock like granite, making the resilience of our buried infrastructure even more important than it may be in other locations who don’t have to deal with such conditions.

I have become very knowledgeable about our topography because, as a member of the Prescott City Council, I have had to vote on projects that must work well in our conditions. In fact, the condition of our drinking water infrastructure is one of the reasons I actually decided to run for Council. A few weeks before declaring my candidacy, I visited a neighbor’s home that sustained significant damage from a ruptured plastic PVC water pipe. Despite past efforts to repair and preserve the pipe, it finally burst and led to substantial damage to their home.  However, they shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place. At that point, I saw it as my duty to maintain and provide durable infrastructure for the public welfare of Prescott for generations to come.

After I was elected to the Council, I continued advocating for a better and more cost-effective solution to our water infrastructure problems. These kinds of projects can be very expensive – even with state and federal grants and low-interest loans available to municipalities and water system operators. Given the expense, and disruption that comes from upgrading our water infrastructure, it is really important that we plan for and make decisions for the long-term. 

Take my city as an example.  Today, there are more than 46,000 people living in Prescott, and we’ve grown by 16.28 percent since 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Given how great a place Prescott is to live, we should only expect future growth. That’s wonderful, but we must properly plan and think about where we might be in a generation or two to ensure that the infrastructure we invest in today will support and help us manage this future growth. 

As I delved into infrastructure research, I learned about different kinds of pipe materials. One of the most important lessons is that not all pipes are created equally, and there are many variations based on how they’re made, what material is used, or even what the soil looks like where the pipe will be installed. The plastic pipes that we have running under much of Prescott may have been cheaper to initially purchase when past city leaders chose to use them, but they crack more easily, don’t last as long, and can actually lose some of their ability to handle pressure at higher temperatures in the soil or even melt if exposed to high temperatures from a fire. 

We’ve also seen pictures on social media of melted plastic trash cans and mailbox stands from the Arizona heat. Imagine the pipe carrying your drinking water melting or being deformed in that same way. A recent California wildfire melted a 7.5-mile stretch of plastic pipe that was a major conveyance for a drinking water system. We need pipes that will last for generations, be environmentally friendly, and resilient enough to handle both our rocky terrain and the challenges tossed at us from prolonged extreme drought and rising temperatures.

I know it sounds like we’re looking for a unicorn, but as I’ve learned, there a pipe material that can do just that: it’s made from a material called ductile iron. Through my research, I learned that water mains made from this material have a service life of 90 to 100 years – that’s nearly three times as long as PVC – is made from recycled steel and iron, and uses less energy to move water. 

Since I was elected, I’ve worked with my fellow Councilmembers to explore the cost benefits and return on investment we could realize as a city if we stopped using plastic pipes and switched to ductile iron. 

After a valuable Council study session, substantive discussions with my colleagues, and important input from our Public Works Director, we unanimously voted to update our General Engineering Standards in a way that will balance costs without compromising the integrity of project materials. This change will save our taxpayers millions of dollars over the long-term and give residents peace of mind that we’re using materials in infrastructure projects that are designed to last.  In fact, it also puts Prescott in good company with over two dozen communities in Arizona like Phoenix and Tempe that have made similar decisions to exclude plastic pipes from their drinking water systems. 

Infrastructure has always been vitally important to the success of Prescott. The process that we underwent to upgrade our engineering standards can be a model for other projects and even other cities in a similar situation. We did our research, put in the hard work to ensure that our drinking water will remain clean, affordable, and accessible for generations. We want Prescott to set the “gold standard” for infrastructure and hope to apply these lessons to other projects to aim for a bright future for generations to come! 

Cathey Rusing is a city councilmember in Prescott, AZ.


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