World Water Day: Valuing Water by Fixing the Leaks

850 water mains break every day across the country

What is essential to daily life and breaks 850 times every day: a water main somewhere in the United States.  In the time it took me to write that sentence one just broke – well, make that two – according to the “Water Main Break Clock” at  Since 2000, more than 3,793,942 water mains have broken, costing nearly $51 billion in repair costs from corrosion and breakage annually. Enough water is wasted in these failing pipes to supply all of California with water for a year.

Considering that up to 40 percent of municipal water systems in the U.S. don’t even meter water by volume, these figures are probably too low. Clearly there is an epidemic of failing and corroded water infrastructure that is costing us dearly. More than any other resource, water is absolutely essential not only to modern civilization, but to life itself. We know this, of course, but too often it is merely a mental exercise. Something we consider as we turn the tap to fill our glass with water and quench our thirst.

But without water there is no energy production, no food grown, no modern conveniences of daily life.  For too long, “people think you shouldn’t have to pay for water,” says Geoff Zeiss, infrastructure expert and Director of Geospatial Technology at Autodesk. “It’s been thought of as a God-given right.” But, little by little, that’s starting to change Zeiss told me in a recent interview. With the growing crisis of corroded pipes and flooded streets people are beginning to realize that our current water path is unsustainable.

Energy issues are also bringing greater awareness to our water crisis, especially with the explosion of fracking and shale gas drilling.  “The public is beginning to realize that energy, water, and land use are all interconnected,” Zeiss says. In fact, fully one-half of water withdrawals in the U.S. go to current energy production. Renewable energy can reduce that heavy toll, but first we must address the pipes:

Fix the leaky pipes! The amount of fully treated and expensivable water that we lose every day – even in this country – is mind-boggling. There is no other industry on earth that would tolerate the sort of product losses that we routinely experience in the water industry. Simply fixing our leaky distribution infrastructure would give us a lot of breathing room in some of the more critically short cities.”
-Steve Maxwell, Water Market Review: 2010 Update and Executive Summary, Techknowledgey Strategic Group. (from

With cash-strapped local, state, and federal governments already straining to meet their budget shortfalls, Zeiss looks to the private sector as a key source of capital to pay for the repair and upgrade of the nation’s beleaguered water infrastructure. But it will also take awareness of how much water we consume, how much we waste, and how we must learn to value water as the source of our existence.

Something to think about this World Water Day over a nice, cool glass of water. Savor it.

Oops, another water main just broke…

Image credit: reallyboring, courtesy Flickr

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