Serving a Noble Cause
by Ronald R. Cavalieri, P.E., BCEE
At this year’s FWEA Leadership Development Workshop, the theme was “Serving a Noble Cause”
and included presentations titled “Communicating the Value of Water” and “Getting our Message Across.” We know that water professionals have made a great contribution to the quality of life in the United States and around the world, yet utility infrastructure in our country is in poor condition and in need of repair and replacement. In many cases, the value of water is taken for granted and not appreciated by the public at large.
Almost everything we do is dependent on clean water to meet our everyday needs. The economy, the environment we live in, our health and welfare, all require clean and sustainable water supply and resources. We use water for agriculture, public water supply, irrigation, recreation, commercial and industrial uses, and power generation.
The rich quality of life that we enjoy in Florida and across the nation is dependent on ensuring that sufficient clean water is available for all reasonable and beneficial uses within our community, while protecting natural systems and the environment. Reliable access to clean, safe water is essential to our way of life.
Safe and Clean Water is Key to Public Health and Protecting Environmental Gains
Compared to medical advances and other new innovative technologies, water and wastewater treatment may not seem as important, but clean water and sanitation alone have saved millions—perhaps billions—of lives since these services were widely implemented in the 19th and 20th centuries. Water is one of the most essential elements to human health and is so important that our bodies have a built-in drought management system to prevent dehydration that helps to ensure our survival.
Advances in water and wastewater treatment are responsible for some of the greatest improvements in public health, including:
Since the enactment and implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) the number of fishable and swimmable waterways in the U.S. has nearly doubled, largely due to investments in clean water infrastructure. Prior to 1972, much of the wastewater in America that was released into our waterways lacked proper treatment, and water quality was declining. Today, cities enjoy a remarkable resurgence, driven in part by revitalized waterfronts that support new businesses, residences, and recreational activities. Congress and the federal government have been partners with states and localities in leading America’s clean water success.
Investing in Clean Water Grows the U.S. Economy and Creates Job
Clean water utilities are looking beyond the CWA to build on water quality gains, maximize ratepayer return on investment, and spur economic growth. Utilities are investing in innovation and smarter approaches to clean water management to address today’s water quality and public health challenges.
In a recent survey of Americans and their opinions on the value of investing in our water resources, 84 percent of respondents agreed that water supply and water quality are on par with strengthening the economy and eliminating COVID-19 as national priorities. Among a variety of issues polled, the highest single federal priority for voters was ensuring a reliable water supply.
Americans are also growing more uncertain about the nation’s water infrastructure. Over the last six years, fewer Americans have rated the national water infrastructure as good, while the number of Americans who are uncertain about the state of water infrastructure has grown. According to a report prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure,” key facts worth noting are as follows:
- In 2019, total capital spending on water infrastructure fell $81 billion short of the capital need. If funding needs and infrastructure investment trends continue, the annual gap will grow to $136 billion by 2039.
- The federal share of capital investment fell from 31 percent in 1977 to 4 percent in 2017.
- There is no industry that does not need water. If we fail to invest in water infrastructure, the businesses that are most reliant on water will spend $250 billion in 2039 on water service disruptions.
- As water infrastructure deteriorates, street flooding, water service disruptions, and damage from storms will increase. Costs incurred by American households due to water and wastewater failures would be seven times higher in 20 years than they are today.
- If the nation closes the water infrastructure investment gap, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would grow by $4.5 trillion in 20 years. This investment would create 800,000 new jobs and disposable income would rise by more than $2,000 per household.
If significant investment is not made, and as production volumes decline, workers would see reductions in wages and disposable income. By 2039, 636,000 jobs would be lost annually.
The U.S. Clean Water Infrastructure Is Failing.
America’s clean water infrastructure is massive. There are over 800,000 miles of water pipes and 700,000 miles of wastewater pipes. The total length of the water and wastewater pipes is 30 times the length of the nation’s interstate highway system. Wastewater utilities serve about 75 percent of the population, and about 32 billion gallons of water are treated and recovered every day by over 15,000 wastewater treatment facilities. Water traveling down the Mississippi River is consumed, treated, and reused roughly 25 times before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
About 85 percent of U.S. residents get their potable water from public water treatment facilities. There are approximately 52,000 water utility systems that deliver potable water to homes and businesses and daily distribute 42 billion gallons of clean water.
Many of our nation’s clean water systems have been in operation for a century or more. The average age of a pipe is between 60 and 130 years old. As pipes, pumps, and plants reach the end of their expected life span, water infrastructure capital needs are growing rapidly; however, investment in infrastructure is not keeping pace.
The ASCE created the Infrastructure Report Card to assign grades for the nation’s infrastructure based on condition, safety, capacity, and other factors. The most recent report card assigned drinking water and wastewater infrastructure the grades of C- and D+, respectively.
Current local, state, and federal capital spending on water infrastructure only funds about one-third of our national needs. In 2019, the total capital spending on water infrastructure at the local, state, and federal levels was approximately $48 billion, while investment needs totaled $129 billion, creating an $81 billion gap. The U.S. is drastically underinvesting in critical water infrastructure—only meeting 37 percent of the nation’s total water infrastructure capital needs in 2019.
Water infrastructure is fundamental to our nation’s economic health and competitiveness. By keeping water infrastructure in a state of good repair, we strengthen our economy. Local, state, and federal action to increase investment in our water infrastructure today will lead to a resilient, efficient, and reliable water future and protect the public health for generations to come.
As water professionals we are proud to serve this noble cause.
The data presented was taken from the following references:
The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure: How a Failure to Act Would Affect the U.S. Economic Recovery - Fact Sheet, ASCE and Value of Water Campaign, 2020.
American Support for Investments in Water Infrastructure: Key Findings from a National Voter Survey, Value of Water Campaign, March 2021.
2021 Value of Water Index, Value of Water Campaign, March 2021.
The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure: How a Failure to Act Would Affect the U.S. Economic Recovery – Full Report, ASCE and Value of Water Campaign, 2020.
The following links are provided as resources on the value of water: