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A collapsed road in Minnesota caused by a flood, exposing a drainage pipe underneath.

“Oh my god…this is horrible.”

Those aren’t the words of a baritone announcer for a dystopian movie trailer, but the words of David Coppes, Director of Water Works at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, when he responded to the alarming 2010 Boston water emergency.

The emergency, which MWRA’s executive director Frederick Laskey called “everyone’s worst nightmare in the water industry”, started when a water pipe in Weston, Massachusetts, broke and began flooding into the Charles River—thus contaminating water sources throughout the state.

When Coppes arrived on the scene, a thousand things raced through his mind. “I don’t know how to explain the feeling when you see something like that,” Coppes told the HPR. “Your heart drops. Suddenly all the training and planning that you do kicks in.”

For Coppes and his extensive staff who worked hour after hour trying to mitigate the effects of the crisis and ensure public safety, it was their duty; however, the efforts of these men and women shouldn’t go forgotten. Everyday water workers walk into a line of work that is unpredictable, fast-paced, and essential to the well-being of the community. For people like Coppes, whose job consists of making sure the system is properly working, and maintained, his job has become increasingly harder as funding decreases for water infrastructure and pipes get older. While the 2010 emergency wasn’t directly linked to old pipes, the effects are similar. Coppes explained that many of the MWRA’s pipes date back to the 1800s, and while the authority is undergoing a massive expansion to upgrade those pipes, it’s a slow and costly process. Unfortunately, the repercussions of having old pipes are much costlier than fixing them. Since a lot of the older pipes in Boston—and across the country—are made out of metal and have begun to rust water systems, many have contaminated the water supply and made the pipes smaller, thus restricting water flow.

One could be excused for being surprised at this information. The crumbling state of our water infrastructure has received very little media attention, and thus the public doesn’t know much about it. Coppes says that public awareness is one of the major problems when dealing with water main breaks because “people just come to expect [water] to be there, and they don’t realize how important it is until it’s not there.”

While the 2010 emergency allowed people to realize how valuable a good, reliable, continuous supply of clean water is, it’s unlikely that people still remember or understand—and that’s the problem.

Water, Water Everywhere

Water isn’t very sexy. Sure it’s necessary for life, and sometimes threatens life, but there’s no political appeal. Unemployment, terrorism, unions, taxes—those are just a small smorgasbord of hot-button issues that make our partisan and politically charged brains tingle, while water’s controversies merely bore us. The problem, however, is that if our ignorance of water’s contentious situation continues, the four aforementioned political topics will become obsolete—and so will we.

Like the typical common commodity, water has been largely taken for granted in the first world—especially in our country—and it makes sense. Given that clean, reliable, and safe drinking water has been around for so long, it’s likely that many of the millions of Americans that rely on water for basic needs like showering, cleaning, drinking, or even flushing the toilet take it for granted. One study found that the average American family of four uses roughly 400 gallons of water a day, and that roughly 17 percent of the total freshwater used in the United States is used by vital industries that rely on public water for their operations.

However, despite water’s absolute necessity for both people and business, few care to discover how their clean water comes to its final state. Across the country, nearly 153,000 drinking-water systems collect billions of gallons of water daily from a variety of sources, using an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 miles of public sewer mains. Many of these pipes and networks, however, have existed long past their operational life, and are now deteriorating.

The results of this are catastrophic. For our country’s 1.5 million miles of water-related pipes—some of which were created more than 120 years ago—there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks a year, which equals about 27 every hour. Approximately 2.1 trillion gallons of water a year are wasted due to old and leaky pipes, meters, and water mains, which accounts for about 14 to 18 percent of the water our nation treats. That amount of water would submerge the entire state of Rhode Island under six feet of water.

That’s One Leaky Faucet

With such disastrous and costly repercussions, it worth considering how we got into such an egregious situation. We maintain our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects on a continual basis—why can’t we fix our water infrastructure? The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, but a difference in visibility. People see the state of decay on roads and bridges directly, and enough complaints from citizens spark the appropriate budget allocation and construction. The same isn’t the case for water. Since our water systems mostly exist underground, most Americans will never get to see this infrastructure, let alone its decay.

These problems, however, didn’t appear overnight. The decay is single-handedly attributable to decades—even centuries—of inadequate and largely mismanaged infrastructure investments. The ignorance leading to this is two-fold: first, while many of the networks of pipes often date as far back as the 19th century, unless a water main breaks or something disastrous occurs, the public will never see it; and second, the government has downplayed many of the reported problems. Consequently, a significant number of our water systems are reaching, or have reached their operational lifespan. These disruptions aren’t just a hypothetical theory since they’ve already happened in practice. In Los Angeles last July, a water main estimated to be 93 years old broke open, flooding the campus of UCLA. In the Chicago area, it’s shown that 22 billion gallons of treated water per year escape through leaky pipes and mains, many of which are more than 100 years old.

Pipes bursting doesn’t just mean we’re dumping billions of gallons of untreated sewage in our water sources, it also slows down commercial investment, further hampering our water service, increasing disruptions, damaging roadways and structures, and hindering fire-control efforts. Such instances not only cost more taxpayer dollars to counteract, but also taint crops, roads, and grass, along with mixing with storm-water and creating excess flow in the process. These consequences came to fruition in Miami, where 70-year-old pipes have ruptured about 65 times in the past two years, discharging more than 47 million gallons of untreated sewage into waterways and streets.

Our crumbling water infrastructure system also has a harmful impact on public health. In March, USA Today reported that more than 2,000 water systems in all 50 states have lead levels in excess of federal limits. Such levels can—on a smaller scale—mirror the events in Flint, Michigan, which have long-term, detrimental impacts on many residents, especially children. It’s clear that the longer the government waits to take decisive action on searching for remedies to alleviate the crisis, the more amplified the health and environmental problems, propagated by poor water systems, will become.

Dollars in Water

It isn’t enough to simply repair our water systems—we must ensure they stay usable. Such a need become imperative when a 2010 United Nations report anticipates America’s population to grow by 35 percent by the year 2050. This increase means that the strain on our water systems will only intensify, and the results of their despair amplified. Fortunately, there are many reforms which could be made to restore and update our water systems. Enacting these reforms, however, requires a significant amount of public and private investment along with the political capital to implement the developments needed.

The question of why we simply can’t allocate more money to fix the problem seems simple enough, but it’s not. Our government could fund the destitute systems if water were charged at a reasonable rate not based on just volumetric usage, but usage in conjunction with the fixed costs of people’s respective water systems. Unfortunately, due to the unpopularity of raising water rates, the cost of residential usage is enormously cheap, thus resulting in a system that is underfunded. There are huge fixed costs involved with clean water, like pumps, pipes, reservoirs, metering, and monitoring.

For the success of a revamped water infrastructure system, investment is key. David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, told NPR that such an investment will cost approximately one trillion dollars—half of which will replace and upgrade current infrastructure, the other half which will go towards building new infrastructure for areas without property water systems. The Congressional Budget Office, in conjunction with the EPA, estimated that it would also take more than $300 billion to address just the nation’s sewage and collection infrastructure needs over 20 years. Yet this investment is worth it—a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that a modest increase in investment can protect $416 billion in GDP, prevent 700,000 job losses, and avoid personal income losses of $541 billion. While the price tag on a massive restoration and upgrade of our water systems is no doubt intimidating, what’s worse is the massive loss of jobs and revenue, along with the massive threat to public health and safety and the daily operation of businesses.

While not all of this infrastructure money is needed at this moment, the government should prepare sooner rather than later, because delaying such an investment would just make it more expensive. Delaying investment would double the cost from roughly $13 billion a year today to almost $30 billion—or $1.7 trillion total—by the 2040s. Foregoing water investment will increase not only water bills, but also local fees, in return for worse maintenance and water quality. The steep cost of kicking the can down the road is due to two factors. First, the more we postpone, the further current water systems deteriorate, and the harder it is to prevent future deterioration. Second, the interest rate for infrastructure investment is at a record-low, and there is no better time to borrow money.

Opponents of such a mass initiative argue that the impacts are hypothetical, and the cost too expensive. Yet we’ve seen first-hand the devastating effect of decreasing water costs in conjunction with stripped back regulations in places like Flint, Michigan—where government agencies have to maintain the same level of infrastructure with less money. While Flint was an operational issue, not an infrastructural issue, its situation no doubt highlights the flawed, bureaucratic oversight by the government that is two parts ignorant, one part indolent.

Power of the People

While substantial reform of our water infrastructure must come at the directive of our government, regular citizens can take action politically or environmentally to begin to rectify this problem. Tracy Mehan, the Executive Director of Government Relations for the American Water Works Association, said the first thing the average person can do “is to be informed and understand what’s going on.”

There are many ways to take action, according to Mehan. At the federal level, you can tell your congressmen and senators that you support the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, along with supporting increased funding courtesy of higher water rates. At the state level, you can express support for similar water infrastructure legislation in the state government. At the municipal level—perhaps the most important level, since many water systems’ root core lie in municipal administration—you can communicate to the mayor and city government that it’s important to invest in water, and support elected officials who promise to follow through on that investment.

From an environmental standpoint, Mehan advises people to do several things. First, use water more efficiently because it not only saves water, but also saves chemicals, materials, and machines that work to make sure your water is clean. Second, curb on common water-wasting activities, like here. Third, encourage a green infrastructure system with regard to storm water and other environmental systems.

While government inefficiency and partisan bickering will pose obstacles to reforming our water infrastructure, the first step is to be aware of the problem. If we don’t do anything, leaky faucets won’t be the only thing going “drip drop”—our entire old and crumbling water infrastructure will be making that noise as well, except on a much larger and deadlier scale.

Image Credit: Patsy Lynch/Wikimedia

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