Virginia Tech Researchers Set The Stage For A National Database Of Water Pipe Infrastructure

By Christina Fisher | September 28, 2010

A group of Virginia Tech faculty and researchers is working to create the prototype of a national Internet-based geospatial database of underground water pipes with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The project is a collaboration between Sunil Sinha, project leader and associate professor in the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE); Randy Dymond, associate professor in the CEE department and co-director of Virginia Tech's Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT); Thomas Dickerson, CGIT research associate; and Rahul Vemulapally, CEE graduate student.

"Underground water pipes are the nation's arteries" said Sinha. "Unfortunately, they are not in a very healthy state. About 40 percent of the water is lost because of leaks and other structural damage."

Sinha added that it is difficult to monitor and maintain underground pipes, but a standardized, Web-based geospatial database of the existing infrastructure information would be very helpful to water utility companies and municipalities.

The Internet prototype application will be created based on underground water and sewage pipe information supplied by three of the 17 cities that are partnering with Sinha and CGIT. "We are currently receiving data in different formats from Atlanta (Ga.), Pittsburgh (Pa.), and Seattle (Wash.), the three pilot cities," said Dymond. "One of CGIT's jobs is to take this diverse information and create a standard format that could be used by all partnering cities."

The geospatial database will include rich, interactive maps of the water pipe infrastructure, as well as data exploration tools and reports. "Users will be able to pan and zoom or easily identify attributes such as pipe diameters, size or current condition," explained Dickerson.

The development of the geospatial database application is part of a group of large-scale water infrastructure projects that Sinha is managing at Virginia Tech. The overall objective of the ongoing water infrastructure research at Virginia Tech is to improve the decision-making process as it applies to water pipe infrastructure asset management and renewal programs.

The data received from the partnering cities are stored on San Diego Supercomputer Center, managed by the National Science Foundation and supervised by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Only Virginia Tech has full access to the data through the team of faculty and researchers involved in the project. All participating utilities have limited access to this national water pipe infrastructure database.

Governor Announces Plan To Modernize Water Systems, Mandate Conservation And Upgrade Emergency Response

Gov. Mike Easley recently announced a three-part legislative package to modernize North Carolina's public water systems, mandate water conservation and efficiency, and upgrade the response to water emergencies.

Legislative proposals to modernize the state's more than 600 public water systems include:

  • Local water systems must develop thorough water shortage plans, conduct regular leak detection and repair audits, and move toward conservation-based pricing in order to be eligible for state funds for water system improvement projects.
  • Priority for state funding will go to projects that improve a community's ability to manage water supplies during a drought.
  • DENR will get staff and funding to develop a detailed and up-to-date map that shows all water system interconnections, alternative water supplies, groundwater status, and other information.

The governor's legislative package would also make changes that mandate water conservation and efficiency, to include:

  • Prohibiting rate structures that cut the rates for users when they use more water.
  • Directing DENR to develop guidelines for water rate structures that encourage people to use less water.
  • Revising the building code to require water-efficient fixtures in new commercial and residential construction.

Finally, the legislation would improve the state's ability to respond to water emergencies, including giving the governor more power to take action prior to a declaration of a public health and safety emergency. Proposals include:

  • Giving North Carolina governors the legal authority to order a water system to provide water to a neighboring community in an emergency.
  • Giving local water agencies in extreme and exceptional drought the authority to impose mandatory water conservation measures to all water users within their jurisdiction, including customers of privately owned water utilities regulated by the state Utilities Commission.

The governor also announced a new website,, aimed at convincing the public to continue saving water to avoid a crisis in the current drought and to instill the need for continued water conservation even when the drought is over.