Our "Hidden" Infrastructure

Out of sight -- and often out of mind -- is a vast network of pipes, wells, and pump stations stretching from one end of the city to the other. Even though much of it is hidden beneath our streets and sidewalks, Madison’s water infrastructure plays a crucial role in our city’s public health, safety and economic well-being, which is why building, replacing and renewing this infrastructure is our ongoing mission.

Madison Water Utility provides safe and reliable water to more than 66,500 households, hospitals and businesses using:

  • 895 miles of water main
  • 23 municipal well facilities across the city 
  • 9,009 fire hydrants hydrants
  • 33 reservoirs providing over 43 million gallons of storage
  • 64,839 service connections and pipes to individual properties

Age Taking a Toll

Imagine driving on a road that hasn't been resurfaced in 60 years. Believe it or not, much of the pipe used to provide water to people across the city of Madison is at least 60 years old. Some pipes date back to the 1880s when Madison Water Utility was created. More than 300 miles of water main pipes put in during the 1940s, 50s and 60s have deteriorated so badly they need to be replaced as soon as possible.

a broken pipe

Because metal was scarce during World War II, thin-walled pipes manufactured during that era with a material called “spun cast iron” are particularly brittle and prone to breaks.

main repair

Madison Water Utility responds to and repairs more than 200 water main breaks per year. And we’re far from alone. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), much of the drinking water infrastructure across the country has reached the end of its useful life. ASCE’s “Report Card on America’s Infrastructure” gives the country’s overall water infrastructure a D grade. The report card notes that there are about 240,000 water main breaks every year in the United States.

Rebuilding & Renewing

Because water infrastructure is so vital to our quality of life here in Madison, the Water Utility is undertaking the enormous task of replacing about a third of our water mains -- some 300 miles of pipe. We’ve gone from replacing just a mile or two of pipe a year a decade ago to replacing six to ten miles.

At a cost of around $1.5 million per mile, replacing water mains is a significant and growing expense. Between 2005 and 2017, MWU replaced 100 miles of aging water main at a cost of more than $100 million. We continue to invest $6-10 million a year in water main replacement.

In accordance with industry best practices, we are replacing the old pipe with modern cement-lined ductile iron pipe, wrapped with plastic sheeting to protect against corrosion. Today’s pipe installations are expected to last 100+ years.


In some cases, it is possible to avoid digging up the old pipe and save money by creating a new pipe within the old one using the latest lining technology, shown in the photo above. We were the first water utility in Wisconsin to use this technology.

Rebuilding and revitalizing Madison’s water infrastructure won’t be easy or quick. We estimate it will take 30 years of focused, deliberate action to turn that 300 miles of deteriorating pipeline into a long-lasting resource that will serve Madison for generations to come. But if we fail to take care of our “hidden” infrastructure now, the impacts will be far from hidden -- disruptions in service, potential exposure from lack of fire protection, and significant and costly roadway damage. Without an adequate, safe water supply, there are no businesses or homes or hospitals -- there is no vibrant and thriving Madison.

Madison Water Utility is committed to making sure our water infrastructure is in the best possible condition, ready to be relied upon by every single person who lives, works or goes to school in Madison. We’re happy to be hidden behind the scenes, to be that resource that’s not often thought about but is always there, ready at the touch of the faucet, whenever you need us.