By: Nathan Sell
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2013 report card gives America’s drinking water infrastructure a D. For those of us who’ve fretted over GPA points for much of our lives, a D is the source of nightmares and leaves us knocking on our professor’s office door begging for an explanation. The reason we find, is that we’ve hidden our precious water infrastructure out of sight where its degradation can be easily ignored. The result? More than $1 trillion needs to be invested in our failing system over the next 25 years.
Our water systems have been historically underfunded, mostly because they require a vision that extends past most terms in office. These infrastructure projects are rarely seen or understood and do not gain many votes, yet as we go about our morning routines, the thought never crosses our mind as to whether or not water will come out of the faucet as we prepare to brush our teeth or brew coffee.
Currently, most municipalities only invest in water infrastructure when it needs to be repaired. Rather than maintenance, we rely only upon “Band-Aids” to keep our systems going. With approximately 240,000 water main breaks per year, we’re fighting a losing battle. Our ancient water infrastructure still contains pipes laid over a hundred years ago, some even constructed from wood or clay. Losing water from treatment facilities to the home represents 16% of our nation’s daily water use, wasting 2.1 trillion gallons a year. This represents not only water loss, but the energy and costs associated with treating this water, only to be wasted. In no other industry is this type of loss acceptable. As we begin to address water scarcity, energy use and climate change on a national level, it is clear that it is time to re-examine how we maintain our water infrastructure.
Rather than wallowing in our seemingly insurmountable water infrastructure woes, companies like United Water are finding the opportunities that are available in rehabilitating these systems and finding the rare win-win-win scenario. At the recent IGEL/United Water conference, “Investing in America’s Public Water Systems: Making Private-Public Partnerships Work” James Kennedy, the former governor of Rahway spoke to the benefits a Public-Private Partnership can generate, not only rehabilitating infrastructure but promoting the town’s growth through infrastructure investment. By bringing in private equity to invest in water infrastructure through PPP’s, debt can be repaid, and a safer, more efficient water system designed for future needs can prevent the reactionary maintenance ethic of the past.
Public-Private Partnerships are not the only way to invest $1 trillion into our water infrastructure but they are quickly proving their worth. The foresight involved in the long-term planning as well as investment of private capital make these partnerships beneficial to the municipalities in which they work, the people they serve as well as the investors who can see the value in this much needed resource. By valuing the resource many consider a human right, we can ensure the longevity of America’s public water systems.