Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure, such as our pipes and valves, is “invisible” as we go about our daily life. However, just because we don’t see the issues doesn’t mean there isn’t problem.
American Water at a glance
With a history dating back to 1886, American Water is the nation’s largest and most geographically diverse publicly traded water and wastewater utility. With more than 6,900 employees, its regulated businesses operate in 1,600 communities in 16 states, with primary assets including:
• 72 surface water treatment plants
• 527 groundwater treatment plants
• 1,103 groundwater wells
• 127 wastewater treatment facilities
• 1,313 treated water storage facilities
• 1,428 pumping stations
• 80 dams and approximately 50,000 miles of mains and collection pipes
Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure, such as our pipes and valves, is “invisible” as we go about our daily life. However, just because we don’t see the issues doesn’t mean there isn’t problem. You can’t see everything that goes on inside your body. If you were told that a part of your body had a problem that you couldn’t see, such as a torn muscle or a clogged artery, would you just ignore it, letting it get worse and causing more damage to your health? Of course not!
I realize this scenario sounds ridiculous.
But it’s an apt analogy about the state of our nation’s water infrastructure. Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure, such as our pipes and valves, is “invisible” as we go about our daily life. However, just because we don’t see the issues doesn’t mean there isn’t problem. Across the country, our water and wastewater infrastructure is aging.
All Infrastructure needs attention and action. However, water infrastructure suffers from the out-of-sight, out-of-mind dynamic and deserves equal, if not greater, prioritization. You hit a pothole and want it fixed. Does anyone care if a water main twenty miles away has a leak? If that leak becomes a break, it will disrupt service for some other customers.
Now consider this: if that water service disruption was extended to the entire country for eight days, it would amount to a one percent loss in annual GDP, which is greater than the recessions of 1974 and 2008.
This may sound like a stretch, but over time, the deterioration of our water infrastructure—and the risk posed to our economy, health and wellbeing—has escalated significantly. If this continues to go unchecked, an eight-day water shutdown with astronomical costs—economic and otherwise—is within the realm of possibility in many places. Moreover, if water shuts down, so does most of our energy, which is dependent on water for its production.
“If water infrastructure is addressed, millions of jobs can be created and billions of dollars can be infused into the economy. Now more than ever our country seems to be poised for action.”
A great deal of this has to do with awareness and attitude. In 2018, the Value of Water Campaign commissioned a poll to measure how Americans prioritize and value water infrastructure funding. Among the conclusions found:
- Four out of five people consider it either extremely important or very important that we rebuild water infrastructure.
- Nearly 75 percent of people support the necessary infrastructure investment—$1.2 trillion over 25 years—to ensure that water and wastewater systems are resilient.
- 79 percent of people support making investments now versus when systems fail.
The longer Americans wait to address infrastructure issues, the bigger the gaps get and greater are the benefits that are not realized. However, a great deal of collaborative efforts are underway. Public utilities and water companies are deploying smarter technologies such as subsurface robotic diagnostics. They are working with each other as well as federal, state and local governments, community and advocacy groups, and others to increase awareness, activism and funding.
Those of us in the water industry know that America cannot wait.
We are already battling against aging and outdated infrastructure with billions of dollars in annual investments now, and continue to build upon current dynamics by increasing collaboration, advocacy and innovation. We also need to continue to increase nationwide respect for water as our most precious resource—and for water infrastructure as the means to ensuring we have it in plentiful, continuous supply.