When Americans turn on their faucets, they shouldn’t have to think about infrastructure. A well-run system for clean drinking water ought to be the bare minimum of what the government delivers.
This issue is mostly hidden — until there is a serious problem. Water main breaks, for example, can tear up roads and damage property. These occur somewhere in the country every two minutes, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Sometimes, these massive leaks force cities to ask residents to boil their water before using it, as happened in the Baltimore area last month, since the leaks could potentially contaminate the water supply with toxins such as lead or dangerous pathogens.
And it can be a vicious cycle: The more water utilities waste, the less cost-efficient they become. That means they have less money for maintenance. Chronically neglected systems can become public health disasters.
Case in point: Jackson, Miss. The city’s dysfunctional water system attracted national outrage last summer when a flood caused a widespread outage. Residents had to rely on bottled water for weeks. In fact, the city is still dealing with the fallout. There are many reasons for the crisis, including understaffing at the utility and poor management. But those problems were compounded by the decrepit infrastructure, which had been bleeding revenue for years.
How widespread is the problem nationally? It’s hard to tell. Most states don’t require water utilities to track water loss or don’t require them to report useful information. In 2021, the ASCE estimated that roughly 6 billion gallons of water were lost every day — enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools. But without local data from utilities, there’s no way to say where that’s happening.
A clearer picture of the problem comes from Georgia. The state is one of the few that requires large water utilities to audit their systems each year and provide that information publicly.
That’s how we know that Atlanta’s water system, which serves more than 1.2 million people, supplied over 35 billion gallons of water in 2021, the most recent data available. Almost a third of that water never reached consumers, costing the system almost $3 million.
And that’s just physical water. Efficient utilities should also track the cost of “apparent” — or “paper” — water losses. This represents water that reached consumers but wasn’t properly measured because of faulty meters or theft. Atlanta’s system, for example, estimates that it bled an additional $9 million in 2021 this way.
Such data is essential for two reasons. First, climate change is stressing utilities in drier regions, especially the Colorado River basin. Fixing leaks will by no means address water shortages in the area, but it is something state and local governments can do now to ameliorate the situation.
Amazingly, many drought-prone states — including Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana — require no audits of their utilities for water loss. That’s inexcusable.
Second, the problem is only going to get worse. Much of the country’s water infrastructure was built after 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed. That means a good portion of the system is reaching the end of its life span. One study found that water main breaks increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018. The American Water Works Association projects that most of the nation’s drinking water pipes will have to be repaired or replaced by 2040.
The United States is not alone in this predicament. Last week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres warned of “infrastructure from another age” during a United Nations conference on global water shortages. He called for greater investments to conserve water, which he stressed will be essential to remain resilient amid climate change.
The good news is that federal lawmakers are aware of the problem and dedicated more than $50 billion in last year’s infrastructure bill to fix the nation’s water system. Unfortunately, that’s only a fraction of the money needed for repairs. If anything, that gap only reinforces the need to track water losses. How can states work out where to invest if they don’t know which water utilities most need fixing?
Americans deserve to know that they can trust their water — and that it is provided in a responsible, efficient manner. If government officials can’t manage that, they will find that the public’s confidence will start to drain away, too.
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