By Michael Deane
As innovative water resource management technologies like smart metering are adopted worldwide, the level of information available to customers and water service providers will continue to grow. Rather than waiting until the end of a billing cycle, individuals, families and businesses equipped with smart meters can monitor their daily usage and gain a better understanding of how essential a safe, reliable water supply is to their everyday activities. Similarly, by providing real time data on usage spikes, smart meters enable water service providers to detect and repair leaks, ultimately improving efficiency, saving precious water resources and reducing costs for end users.
Increased information and a better understanding of water as an indispensible resource come at an important time, with economies around the world facing significant water resource management challenges. Here in the US, the Government Accountability Office has estimated that 36 states will experience water shortages by the end of this year – a statistic which will only be exacerbated by drought conditions. This situation already has sparked discussions across the nation about water supply, and in some communities, innovative approaches like desalination and water reuse have gained traction. In others, limited supply has led to major disputes, like the water rights fight between Texas and Oklahoma that’s currently pending before the US Supreme Court.
Equally important to the attention given to new supply is the growing focus on the need for a sound and sustainable water infrastructure system. In the US, the majority of water mains and other pipes were installed in the first half of the twentieth century, and over the years, insufficient investment and deferred maintenance have caused a decline in the health of our system. This lack of attention and investment has resulted in a nearly constant stream of news stories about broken water mains and other problems.
The cumulative statistics are staggering: nearly 650 water mains break across the country every day, resulting in boil advisories, major business disruptions and dangerous sinkholes. And, according to the US Geological Survey, nearly 16% of the nation’s treated water never reaches the tap – a stunning loss of 1.7 trillion gallons every year. To put it into perspective, each day, the total amount of treated drinking water lost would meet the daily needs of the entire state of California.
A growing chorus of voices from government and the private sector is bringing much-needed attention to these hidden problems, however. Mayor Rahm Emanuel established the Chicago Infrastructure Trust to facilitate transformative infrastructure projects in the city by offering a range of financial tools to fund those projects, including private entities. And in Texas, the legislature is considering a constitutional amendment allowing the state’s emergency Rainy Day Fund to be tapped to establish a water infrastructure bank to fund improvement and replacement projects. The state Senate has approved the amendment, and if the House follows suit, it will be on November’s ballot.
In addition, President Obama has called for a national approach to tackling the nation’s infrastructure challenges. In his State of the Union address, the President announced a Fix-It-First policy, which would focus federal resources on infrastructure systems most in need of repair. And in late March, the Administration announced the Rebuild America Partnership, designed to leverage private resources to meet these national needs, noting in the announcement that “…America works best when it’s calling upon the resources and ingenuity of our vibrant private sector.”
Similar calls for action are coming from sources outside government as well. In early February, the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) and the US Chamber of Commerce joined together to launch the Water Is Your Business campaign (www. waterisyourbusiness.org). Designed to stimulate conversations about water infrastructure at the local level, this interactive site has the short term goal of dramatically increasing the dialogue – informed by facts – on the critical importance of investing in the US water infrastructure. Over the long term, Water Is Your Business seeks to create a nationwide community of advocates and ambassadors willing to promote comprehensive solutions.
In March, the 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure, issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), gave the nation’s water infrastructure a dismal grade of “D,” observing that “…much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.” The ASCE also has noted that the private sector is an important partner in meeting the national need for replacement. These were key messages that NAWC members carried to Congress during our annual Washington Fly-In in April, and were an important part of the Water for Jobs National Water Infrastructure Summit – a first-of-itskind dialogue between public officials and private business designed to further elevate the water infrastructure conversation, also held in April.
Through these activities – mobilization campaigns, policy proposals, advocacy events and investments in technology and infrastructure – the public and private sectors are working together to communicate the true value of water. It is an essential resource relied upon by every individual, family and business in the world, and we all have an important role to play in ensuring that it is not taken for granted.