NYT article highlights national water infrastructure woes - Metropolitan Planning Council

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NYT article highlights national water infrastructure woes

A wonderfully written article by Charles Duhigg in this morning’s The New York Times tells the story of George S. Hawkins, a man on a mission to educate Americans about the costs, and value, of delivering clean water to our homes and businesses.

Hawkins heads up the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, which happens to supply water to the White House, in addition to approximately 2 million D.C.-area residents. According to the article, an average of one pipe breaks per day in Washington – a major inconvenience for Hawkins and local residents, and perhaps more importantly a telling sign of just how unkempt our nation’s water infrastructure has become: As the article also noted, “a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.” This, despite more than $10 billion the federal government has allocated to water infrastructure programs in the last year. Forgive the pun, but $10 billion is truly a drop in the bucket compared with the EPA-estimated $335 billion needed simply to maintain the nation’s tap water systems.

MPC’s Josh Ellis called attention to Chicago-area pipe bursts a few weeks ago on this blog:

“Main breaks are the most visible sign of infrastructure deterioration, but hardly the most pervasive. Constant leaks in public water systems are a drain on water, energy and budget resources. A water system that loses ‘only’ 10 percent of its load to leakage is considered exemplary. If every time you went grocery shopping you managed to lose 10 percent of your food on the trip home, you'd be pretty upset and do something about it.

“Part of the problem is a lack of revenue — too often infrastructure repair costs are not accounted for in water rates, and so communities simply have no money to fix pipes. That mounts over time, and now water consumers in 2010 are saddled with repairs that were needed in 1980.” 

Today’s NYT piece echoed Josh’s sentiments:

“For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

“Mr. Hawkins’s answer to such problems will not please a lot of citizens. Like many of his counterparts in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta and elsewhere, his job is partly to persuade the public to accept higher water rates, so that the utility can replace more antiquated pipes.

“‘People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water,’ said Mr. Hawkins, who before taking over Washington’s water system ran environmental groups and attended Princeton and Harvard, where he never thought he would end up running a sewer system. ‘You can go a day without a phone or TV,’ he added. ‘You can’t go a day without water.’”

Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s national Fix a Leak Week. If you own or rent a home, you can take steps to reduce hidden leaks in your own home, saving water and money. Get tips on how to do this by visiting the WaterSense web site, an EPA partnership program.

You can also get involved by supporting MPC’s work to reform the federal Clean Water and Drinking Water Revolving Loan Funds, which are up for reauthorization by Congress. Lots of municipal governments rely on these loan funds to provide the necessary capital for new projects, and so the loan requirements drive a lot of decision making. Learn more about our recommended reforms, and contact Josh Ellis at jellis@metroplanning.org to get involved in advocating for more targeted, effective water infrastructure investments.


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