For economy, public safety, now is the time to bring the water infrastructure crisis to the surface

Supporters of the Iowa Environmental Council report clean water is their top priority, but across the country and in Iowa, the infrastructure cities use to provide clean water at the tap and clean up wastewater bound for our rivers is often in disrepair due to lacking investment.  This is a guest post by Randy Moore, president of Iowa American Water, a water utility serving more than 200,000 customers in easter Iowa, which explains that challenge:

Elected officials and candidates for office frequently touch on the issue of infrastructure investment and both the challenges and opportunities it presents: The challenges of delaying much-need improvements and expanding resources for private capital;   the opportunities for putting America back to work. However, any talk about U.S infrastructure is usually about roads and bridges; water infrastructure is largely missing from the conversation.

In our country, water service is generally so reliable we tend to take it for granted, which is key to the challenges we face. Recent  customer research revealed that most consumers generally don’t think about the process or the people involved in delivering high quality water to their taps, or how continuous maintenance and upgrades to the system ensure that water service will be available for home use, businesses, agriculture, and fire protection for the community.

And, unlike visibly deteriorating roads or bridges, no one sees the similar problems facing the nation’s water infrastructure; buried beneath our feet, it’s an out of sight, out of mind issue – until a major water main breaks, a situation that occurs every two minutes somewhere in the country, including Iowa. The resulting above ground disruptions are just the tip of the iceberg.

We cannot ignore the fact that the widespread deterioration of America’s water infrastructure is reaching a critical stage. Considering that many of the 700,000 miles of pipes nationwide, originally built to be in service for 50 years, are still being used a century later, it’s no wonder that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave them a grade of D- grade – just above failing — in its 2009 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure. In fact, the rate at which water infrastructure is being replaced, on average, is about 250 years the equivalent of replacing pipes today that were laid when Thomas Jefferson was president.

The impact of not addressing the breakdown of our water systems now could have numerous repercussions down the line. Increased service interruptions and inadequate flow and pressure, impediments to emergency response, damage to other infrastructure, and an unreliable supply of safe drinking water, increasing the likelihood of public health issues, are all real possibilities. What’s more, the impact of aging infrastructure and related service issues can cost up to 10 times more to fix as an emergency than under a well-planned water infrastructure renewal plan.

In a recent study on the economic impact of under-investing in our water and wastewater infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that remaining on the current track will cost American businesses $734 billion in sales between now and 2020, and the cumulative loss to our GDP will be $416 billion, directly due to deteriorating water infrastructure. Equally sobering is the fact that leaking or broken pipes waste more than 7 billion gallons of clean, treated drinking water every day.

The U.S. EPA, in a 2007 report to Congress, estimated that $334.8 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years were needed to ensure the continued viability of underground drinking water systems, and the health, economic vitality, and fire protection supported by them.

Iowa accounted for $6.1 billion of this, of which nearly $4.4 billion was for transmission and distribution mains.

The good news is, with this crisis comes incredible opportunity – 40 years of experience proves that water infrastructure development creates good-paying jobs and boosts the nation’s economy. With millions of Americans out of work, the timing could not be better to reinvest in our essential water infrastructure. Some argue that we cannot afford these investments during a time of economic distress. To the contrary, we can no longer afford not to make them.

Working to repair, replace, and upgrade our aging water systems also ensures safe and reliable water to attract and retain industry, business, and qualified workers, which are essential to any thriving community. The long-term impact of failing to do so, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, could lead to $206 billion in increased costs for businesses and households between now and 2020, and, unless the infrastructure deficit is addressed by 2040, 1.4 million jobs could be at risk. Conversely, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that $6 billion in infrastructure investment would yield 244,000 jobs annually, while a study by the Economic and Policy Institute, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, suggested that expenditures on water infrastructure alone could lead to the creation of more than a million jobs over the next five years.

Since 1874, Iowa American Water or its predecessors have met the challenges of new water quality standards, periods of drought, and fire protection in our service communities. Over the last two years, we have proactively invested about $15 million in water system improvements at its treatment facility and in its distribution – from replacing water mains, pipelines, and hydrants, and the installation of advanced metering technology that helps reduce water leaks, to enhanced treatment capabilities enabling us to continue delivering efficient service. Projects are planned based on greatest need, balanced by the price paid by our customers, on play an important role – every water payment they make supports critical improvements to our water system.

There’s an obvious cost to assure such quality and dependability. The facilities and systems providing water services to customers takes three times more money to supply than other utility providers, yet it is typically the least expensive of Americans’ utility bills. Water and wastewater service is usually the lower percentage utility cost per household, at an average of 12 percent, compared to gas/oil at 18 percent, telephone at 33 percent and electricity at 37 percent. At the cost of about a penny per gallon, water is a tremendous value, especially considering that the current price of a gallon of milk or gas today is creeping toward $4.

The time has come for us as a nation — community by community — to commit to adopting strategies to renew our water infrastructure. We must appreciate what’s at stake and work together to create viable solutions to keep the water flowing now and into the future. Considering that water is fundamental to our overall quality of life, not to mention our very existence, it’s an investment that’s well worth it.

Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Iowa Environmental Council below. We welcome your comments and reactions to this piece below or by e-mail to iecmail@iaenvironment.org.

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