Water vs. the Economy: How Do Americans Value Water?

By Lauren Contorno

Much of our nation’s water infrastructure is outdated and in dire need of repair. Every day, 7 billion gallons of water are lost to water main breaks—enough to supply water to the entire state of California. Every year, 10 billion gallons of raw sewage are released into our waterways due to blocked or broken pipes, or simply because there is not enough detention capacity available in our combined sewer systems. The facts are out there, but are Americans cognizant of them? Are Americans willing to invest in our nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure to rectify the problem? Where does water supply and quality rank on the average American’s list of important national issues? These are just a few of the questions that Xylem Inc. set out to answer with their nationwide Value of Water Index. The survey was conducted in 2010 and 2012, revealing important trends in public opinion.

It appears that overall, Americans recognize that our water infrastructure deserves attention. According to survey results, 85% of voters believe that federal, state, and local governments should invest money in upgrading our water pipes and systems. Regardless of region, residence, gender, age, or political affiliation, the majority of voters believe reform of the nation’s water infrastructure is needed. According to the 2012 data, 66% of voters believe thatAmerica’s water pipes and systems are approaching a state of crisis. And not only are Americans concerned about water infrastructure, but they are willing to pay for it. In fact, the majority of people are willing to pay a slightly higher water bill each month to address reforms: 61% of Americans are willing to pay an average of $7.70 more per month in water bills to upgrade water systems, a $1.50 increase from 2010.

Americans who believe reform of nation’s water infrastructure is needed

Source: Value of Water Survey

However, although most Americans see replacement of our dilapidated water system as an important issue, a distinction must be made between issue importance and issue salience. An issue may be defined as important if voters express that the issue is of great consequence or value. Therefore, survey results indicate that Americans see our water system as important. However, an issue can be said to be salient if it stands out in one’s conscious, relative to many other issues. On the 2010 survey, respondents were posed with the open-ended question of “In your opinion, what is the most important issue facing theUnited States today?” Less than 1% of respondents said water supply/quality as an answer. The most popular responses were the economy (39%), jobs/unemployment (33%), and war/terrorism/the troops (7%).  These results indicate that while Americans, when asked, may affirm that water quality/supply is an important issue to them, it is not a very salient issue. In other words, it is not at the forefront of most Americans’ minds.

Source: Value of Water Survey

Furthermore, though public opinion surveys can gauge national sentiment on a particular issue, sentiments do not necessarily translate into public action. Americans may say they are concerned about water quality and/or supply, but they may not be making any personal lifestyle changes to protect our water. Today Americans use 127% more water than we did in 1950 and use more water per capita daily than any other country.

What accounts for this disconnect between concern and action? Why is water supply/quality an important issue, but not necessarily a salient one? It may be largely explained through lack of education. Many Americans may not understand the true severity of theU.S.water crisis, or may not know what lifestyle choices to make in order to conserve and protect our water supply.

Through campaigns such as Water our Water’s Worth, we can start to close the gap between Americans’ values and Americans’ actions. The Value of Water Survey does indicate that Americans are responsive to issue education, meaning exposure to facts heightened voters’ concern for our water supply and quality. In fact, after exposure to alarming facts, the number of voters who agreed that our water infrastructure needs a complete overhaul and major reform increased by 26% compared to when they were questioned prior to fact exposure. This demonstrates that education may be the key to public policy support and perhaps even lifestyle changes.

Continued public education and outreach efforts by Openlands, the Metropolitan Planning Council, and other environmental organizations are vital to inform citizens of current water issues and their implications, which can help make these issues more salient. In order to connect water issues to the top issues in most Americans’ minds, the economy and employment, future outreach efforts may benefit from demonstrating how investment in sound water management can generate economic benefits and create jobs. One major example of this is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) of Greater Chicago Deep Tunnel project, (otherwise known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan) that has already enhanced flood and pollution control in theChicagoarea by increasing the combined sewer system’s capture rate and capacity.  In addition to creating hundreds of jobs for the engineering and construction of this water infrastructure project, the project is also generating millions of dollars in flood damage reduction benefits by reducing street and basement backup flooding and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). CSOs threaten the health of the Great Lakes, which are the primary drinking water supply for over 30 million people who live in theGreat LakesBasin. This civil engineering project demonstrates the value of investing in water infrastructure projects to improve water quality and public health, while also generating economic returns.

Deep tunnel projects typically involve huge capital investments, but in turn yield important economic benefits for metropolitan areas.

By raising awareness about large infrastructure projects like these as well as community scale water infrastructure projects, concerns regarding the economy and water issues no longer must be competing interests in Americans’ minds. Through continued education, more Americans can begin to understand what our water’s worth.

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