Tackling U.S. Water Infrastructure Problems

The water crisis in Flint Michigan has shed light on problems of water contamination and of crumbling water infrastructure facing communities all over the U.S. With presidential candidates like Trump and Sanders regularly highlighting infrastructure issues as key aspects of their platforms and the considerable national attention given to water because of Flint, it seems like an opportune time to try to make a decisive push towards addressing our water infrastructure problems.

Leaders of both major parties and both sides of the political spectrum agree that it is important and we should invest in it. Why, then, is it so often overlooked?

The short answer is that it is “not sexy.” What most people mean when they (over)use that phrase is that, for many reasons, infrastructure is both easy to overlook and not very politically flashy. That is, until something goes terribly wrong. Additionally, when it comes to water infrastructure, it is even easier to overlook as pipes and water mains are usually buried underground. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Easy to Overlook

While everything appears to be working normally, deficient infrastructure is easy to overlook—even when it causes major problems. We hear about and see UCLA’s campus get flooded by a water main break, but we are not really forced to think about the age of our pipes until there is a geyser shooting up the middle of Sunset Boulevard. In the absence of catastrophe we assume, or act as if, things are working as they should. But the reality is that our crumbling infrastructure is closely related to serious problems of water waste and of water contamination.

By: Los Angeles Fire Department (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lafd/14629014559)
By: Los Angeles Fire Department (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lafd/14629014559)

In terms of water waste, an article by Next City states: “If all of the estimated 2.1 trillion gallons of expensive, treated water that leaks from the country’s outdated systems each year sloshed its way to New York City, a 298-foot flood would swallow Manhattan. If this wave of wasted water hit Chicago, the Windy City would become a swimming pool with a 43-foot deep end.”

Furthermore, the American Works Association estimates that nationwide 2 trillion gallons of water is lost every year which is 14% to 18% of the the water that is treated.

In addition, old corroding pipes can lead to problems of water contamination such as in Flint. Now, in Flint there were many other problems at play, including the corrosive nature of the water source and insufficient treatment for it. In the end, the lead came from (and continues to leech from) the corroded lead pipes.

This issue of water contamination is more nuanced and complicated than water waste from leaks, as each case differs between communities and water systems. However, lead contamination from pipes seems to be a common enough to warrant attention.  To make matters even more complicated, it is not always the water provider’s pipes and water treatment that causes contamination,  but the lead pipes that lead up to your house from the street. These pipes are considered to be the responsibility of the owner to replace since it’s in their property, but many can’t afford to  because it would be prohibitively expensive.

In these cases it becomes unclear who is to be held accountable for the contamination and who should foot the bill of replacing those lead pipes. Shouldn’t uncontaminated running water for your house be accesible to everyone? On the other hand, should the government or the utility be held responsible for a property owner’s failure to update their plumbing?

More broadly, that there are many actors involved also blurs the lines of who is accountable or responsible for what. We talk about infrastructure on a national level but, with regards to water, there are both private and public utilities that provide the service, and there are a host of other government actors and agencies at state, regional, and local levels that are tasked with overseeing water quality standards. Who is at fault when infrastructure is neglected and something goes wrong is not always so clear-cut.

Politically Undesirable

From a politician or policymaker’s standpoint, preventing or fixing infrastructure problems is not always the best project in terms of publicity and approval ratings. Ensuring regular maintenance of important structures is not quite as exciting or flashy as a brand new project that leads to a ribbon-cutting ceremony or a talk or visit that will ensure a photo-op.

Additionally, fixing infrastructure is so expensive that any comprehensive project to replace, for example, a water pipes system will often be tied to raised taxes or utility rate hikes to be able to finance it—and us constituents sure love those! It goes without saying that our leaders should be more concerned about the work that they should do to help their communities rather than about their approval ratings, but when talking about why infrastructure is not prioritized this is certainly another good explanation.

By: Korona Lacasse (https://www.flickr.com/photos/korona4reel/14107489905)
By: Korona Lacasse (https://www.flickr.com/photos/korona4reel/14107489905)

Infrastructure has so often been called “not sexy” that evenLast Week Tonight‘s segment on crumbling infrastructure included a video montage of politicians coining the phrase. Yet, it seems that we have reached the point that the problem is so bad and apparent that there actually is a lot of talk about it. Maybe by deeming it unsexy so many times, we have ironically actually “sexy-fied” it enough to have garnered sufficient attention.

So the question really is, now that we have the attention, what do we do about it?

In a piece by Robert Puentes, he says part of the problem is that we should stop thinking about infrastructure and infrastructure funding so broadly, and start bringing up specific problems that need to be addressed and projects that should be undertaken.

Now that we know that the situation is bad, it would be helpful to bring to light just how bad, and advocate for more transparency from service providers. Now that the general problem is visible, let’s keep trying to make it more so. In fact, Danielle Gallet poses here: “[we should] start by understanding how much water we’re actually losing. Establishing universal auditing and standards across water utilities is a critical and low-cost first step.”

She also highlights: “Best practices include state-of-the-art auditing methods, leak detection monitoring, targeted repairs or upgrades, pressure management and better metering technologies. By adopting such practices, water service providers can save themselves and their communities money in the long run while protecting resources and generating economic growth.”

In learning about leaky pipes and decreasing water waste, I also came across an article that outlines all the complexities of fixing water leak problems and how one company is taking a smarter, measured approach to save the most water within a set of constrained resources and conditions. Jess Berst also explains smart technologies to reduce leaks in this piece for WaterWorld.

These include Big Data approaches which certainly have the potential to bring more transparency as to how our water is managed. An example can be how the LA Times has a virtual map on water leaks and pipe breaks. The same approach can be taken for water contamination reporting. These are ways to make these problems more visible so that they are no longer “out of sight, out of mind”.

However, a major constraint to implement some of these is funding. As already mentioned, infrastructure is expensive. But it is worth noting that not fixing leaks and infrastructure is also very expensive, as we are paying to treat and transport water that we don’t actually use or charge customers for. Wasting water is wasting money. And damage done by flooding when old pipes burst is also costly and would be prevented by maintaining and retrofitting systems regularly.

Additionally, it’s hard to garner enough funding to implement solutions because, in general, water prices in most of the U.S. have been kept artificially low due to political pressures. As this article and the previous one point out: “Americans will pay hundreds of dollars a month for cellphone and cable TV service, but expect water and sewer rates to be much lower”.

It comes down to values and priorities, and the fact is that we are not valuing and prioritizing water in the way that we should. If we all agree that having clean water is important, and we do, let’s take the necessary steps to ensure we stop wasting it and contaminating it, so that we all have access to it today and in the future.

Incidentally, if you are interested in issues related to water you should be glad to learn that April’s Bedrosian Book Club Podcast will feature a post-apocalyptic novel by Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife. The story is set in a future, drought-stricken, devastated U.S. Southwest where access to water is everything. This month’s discussion should help illustrate the consequences of not taking some of these present problems seriously enough. Don’t forget to listen and leave us a review!

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