Fixing The Unseen Infrastructure: The Value Of Water

Value of water: treatment facility

The Value of Water Coalition hosted an in-depth conversation at the Newseum in Washington DC on the current condition of water infrastructure in the United States, the consequences of letting leaky and failing systems worsen, and solutions to water challenges of today and tomorrow.

Our water infrastructure systems, a matter of pride for over a century, are now aging. At the same time, climate change has accelerated the critical need for this once-ubiquitous resource. In a speech last week at the Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses New York State’s Hudson River at one of its widest points, President Obama pointed out a growing and usually ignored dilemma of water use in the United States:

“We’ve got leaky pipes that lose billions of gallons of drinking water every single day, even as we’ve got a severe drought in much of the West.”

As part of the recent Infrastructure Week 2014, the Value of Water Coalition hosted an in-depth conversation to explore the current condition of US water infrastructure, the consequences of letting failing systems worsen, and solutions to meeting our water challenges.

“Out of sight, out of mind.” Unlike highways, ports, transit, and power lines, our water system mostly lies hidden underground. Its fresh and waste water components take up more than four times the length of the National Highway System. Ken Kopocis, a senior advisor to the U.S. EPA for Water featured in the video clip here, compared how our water infrastructure relates to other types of infrastructure.  

In many ways, water infrastructure is the stepchild of other infrastructures, and a victim of its own success. We’ve had it for more than a century (see chart), it still works, and aside from the occasional catastrophe, we never pay attention to it.

Value of water: infrastructure infographic ( Carter of Ball State University recently prepared this infographic about water infrastructure development in the United States for America’s Water Infrastructure Shows Its Age—The National Debate About How to Pay for Repairs.

In this 2012 publication, Brett Walton of Circle of Blue explores what projects could be chosen, and who will pay. The graphic is interactive—explore it further here.

Another important subject was the risks of climate change to how we store, transport, and process water. Water demand alters with land use changes, which depend on population and economics and shift with supply and demand, variables that are hard to factor into forecasting. Events like storm surges and Florida’s “sunshine flooding” are likely to multiply and worsen. We think of drought and farmland in the larger Midwest, but it rarely occurs to most people, for example, that evapotranspiration increases with temperature everywhere. The problems themselves create newer and deeper effects.

Value of Water CoalitionAlso featured on the panel were George Hawkins, General Manager of DC Water; Tony Parrott, Executive Director of Greater Cincinnati’s Metropolitan Sewer District; Ed Pinero of Veolia North America; and Mark Strauss, Sr. VP of Corporate Strategy and Business Development at American Water. Cathleen Kelly, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, moderated the discussion. You can access the entire two-hour program (2.7 GB) here.

As the Coalition points out, water connects us, grows jobs and opportunity, keeps us safe and healthy, and sustains our environment. Keeping it clean and flowing is a relatively small price to pay.

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