The Cracks Beneath the Street
I am sitting in my Project 52, which those of you who spend time on whitewater rivers will know to be a kayak. The river level is up, which makes for lots of company on the water, and the guy I am chatting with asks me what I do for work. “I work for EPA on water infrastructure sustainability.” His reaction is typical—no idea what that means. But he kayaks and has some interest in water and seems up for the explanation.
Most folks I know don’t think much about where their water comes from, where it ends up when it goes down the drain or the extensive infrastructure systems that take care of all that. The ones I have cornered, like that kayaker, now know that those water infrastructure systems of pipes and treatment plants are in quiet crisis. Our utilities have done a great job of providing us with safe water to drink by collecting and treating wastewater before discharge, usually into a nearby waterway (that some of us kayak in). But many utilities have underinvested in renewing those systems. And a BIG bill is coming due.
We need to start replacing that stuff at a rate that is sustainable. I have heard estimates that we replace about 0.5 percent of water distribution pipes a year. That would mean we expect those pipes to last, on average, for 200 years. Not likely. NOT sustainable … .
Nationwide, annual utility revenues are roughly $25 billion less than what a sustainable replacement pace would require. We can cover a good portion of that through efficiency, and I coordinate a slew of programs to help utilities cut costs and make the most of every dollar. But utility revenues—and so the price of water services—are also going to have to go up to close that gap.
So next time you hear that water or sewer rates might go up, think about how you depend on those services. Think about how much you spend on cable T.V. or your cell phone (typically more than on water services). Lots of folks have very tight budgets, no question, but if we want to continue to enjoy fabulous water services, we are all going to have to help keep our utilities afloat.
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Andy Crossland is the sustainable infrastructure coordinator for EPA’s Office of Water. This blog first was posted in EPA’s Greenversatic blog.