America’s Water Infrastructure Crisis: The Six Pillar Solution

By: Summer Minger

Utility Service Partners

Clean water technologies (filtration and chlorination) are likely the most important public health intervention of the 20th Century.

—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Every day, we habitually turn on a faucet, draw a bath, and flush a toilet with no more thought than we give to breathing or walking. Yet over the vast span of human history that unfolded prior to 1900, these commonplace household activities would have been viewed as miraculous. In fact, water was often as much a threat to human health as an essential ingredient of life.
Before the turn of the last century, water was a primary carrier of infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. In the crowded conditions of a rapidly urbanizing America, this could mean a death sentence for city dwellers. For example, an outbreak of cholera that hit Memphis in September 1873 killed 2,000 out of the 7,000 who were infected, in a city with a population of 40,000.
It’s only been about 100 years since the advent of the chlorination of drinking water and the treatment of raw sewage, which virtually eliminated water as an acute public health threat. This also made possible and desirable the expansion of water and sewer networks, which by 1940 had been extended to 94 percent of urban households. It is no exaggeration that this mostly unknown and unheralded investment in water treatment and networks is what makes modern life as we live it possible.
Sadly, such minor miracles can no longer be taken for granted. The maintenance and improvement of our nation’s water systems[i] have been ignored for so long that we are now reaping the consequences, as these sobering statistics demonstrate:

  • 250,000 – the annual number of water main breaks
  • 7 trillion – the amount in gallons lost through these leaks
  • .6 billion – the estimated cost of water lost through leaks
  • trillion – the amount estimated by the American Water Works Association that must be spent on drinking water systems over the next 20 years

Even the most casual followers of news and current events have heard of the lead poisoning that struck Flint, Michigan and its water supply a few years ago. A tragic event; but because of the publicity it received, the importance of addressing the presence of lead in our water systems has moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. However, in many ways, the statistics listed above are just as sobering as they point to the deteriorating status of the water systems that we cannot live without.
The magnitude of this crisis is daunting. Fixing it will not be cheap or simple. And there is no single policy, approach, or initiative that will get our nation’s water systems out of this predicament.
What will solve this problem is leadership and a plan that addresses these many challenges comprehensively. Because water systems form an integral part of the built environment and are an entrenched component of it, there are no “do overs.” Instead, getting the water systems we need will require a plan that builds on the systems we have.
The plan that follows consists of Six Pillars. It is based on lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years of building, running, improving, and thinking about water systems. The emphasis placed on them will vary over time, but they are complementary and must be pursued simultaneously for the plan to succeed. The Six Pillars are:

  1. Education – This pillar is first among equals. Before this crisis can be solved, its dimensions and consequences must be known. Continuous education of and communication to customers, policy makers, the media and other stakeholders is the essential element needed to build the water systems we need.
  2. Data – Water utilities generate terabytes of data daily. Harnessing it generates insights into more effective and efficient ways to operate and improve water infrastructure.
  3. Efficiency – The financial needs of this sector are great, and funds are limited. To close this gap, water utilities need to make the most of every dollar.
  4. Technology – The innovation in processes and systems that can benefit the water sector is unprecedented. Let’s harness them to benefit customers and disseminate innovation rapidly throughout the sector.
  5. Alternative Financing – Local utilities cannot afford to address this crisis alone. They need financial assistance from all levels of government as well as the private sector through alternative contracting approaches such as Public Private Partnerships (P3s) and concessions.
  6. Local Investment – Utilities are largely funded through customer rates. Even with third-party assistance, the cost of solving this crisis will fall primarily on the backs of local ratepayers. Let’s make sure the first five pillars are addressed before any more demands are put on utility customers.

Every participant in the water sector has an important role to play in advancing one or more of these Pillars. That includes the NLC Service Line Warranty Program, which is uniquely positioned to make an impact in each of these areas. For example, on education, the Company is sponsoring this series of articles and using its channels to communicate our nation’s water infrastructure crisis to audiences who may have little knowledge of its magnitude. Increasing the general public’s awareness of this crisis and its solutions is foundational to building a constituency that demands it be addressed.
Through a series of articles, I will be examining each of the Six Pillars, discuss their importance and how HomeServe products and services are being used by water utility customers to help solve our nation’s water infrastructure crisis.
Our civilization literally depends on it.
[i] In this article, unless the context indicates otherwise, “water” denotes both water and sewer.