Water issues have been a frequent topic in the news lately, from large main breaks like the one that affected UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion to the algae bloom in Toledo’s source water.
Stories about water system issues come and go from the news headlines, but the challenges they represent are constant topics of discussion for those of us in the water industry, and are worthy of greater focus for a broader audience, too. After all, quality water systems are essential for a community’s good health, fire protection and economic vitality.
In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers, in giving a letter grade to America’s infrastructure, rated our nation’s overall drinking water system infrastructure a “D.” The U.S. EPA has projected that a staggering $380 billion is required to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years.
How did we as a country get in this situation? Much of America’s water infrastructure was first installed in the mid- to late-1800s. As cities grew, more underground water pipes and related facilities such as pump stations, treatment plants and water tanks were added to support the needs of growing populations. All of these water assets came at a cost, either from ratepayers or, in some cases, through various loan or grant programs, and all of the assets have a finite lifespan.
Certainly many water system replacements and upgrades have been made over time to our nation’s water infrastructure. Illinois American Water, for example, invests over $60 million annually for system renewal in the form of water pipe replacements, treatment plant upgrades and more and is in better shape than most systems across the country. But not all systems have done so, and even those that have tried often get pushback from elected leaders, customers and others who simply don’t want to pay more for water service.
It’s understandable that no one wants to see costs for anything go up. But the facts are that if we as a nation want to continue enjoying the benefit of quality water systems to support our communities, we must find new ways to make the necessary investments now. Upgrades are needed in order to meet modern needs and customer expectations, comply with stricter regulations and prepare for the future. This is especially true for many of the smaller systems who are most challenged economically because of low revenue streams in their communities and small customer bases over which to spread significant infrastructure costs.
Broken water pipes, leaking systems, failing water treatment plants and outdated technology are just a few of the challenges many U.S. water utilities are facing today. These translate for consumers into interruptions of service, traffic delays, wasted water resources, water shortages and less than acceptable water quality. Strong, viable water systems are necessary for economic development and adequate fire protection, and investment in infrastructure brings jobs to communities. Convenient, quality tap water was one of our nation’s greatest accomplishments during the last 125 years. We need industry, community and political leaders across the country engaged in discussions about how we will keep quality water flowing for the next 125 years, and beyond.
Karla Olson Teasley is president of Illinois American Water and has more than 25 years of experience in the water utility industry.