So why then are we talking about spending $1 trillion to repair one of our existing water systems when what we really need is a whole new approach? It would be like investing in room-sized, mainframe computers running on punch cards rather than moving to laptops, tablets and cloud storage.
But the AWWA’s focus on “where, when, and how much pipe replacement or expansion for growth required” is only the beginning of the conversation. We also need answers to the “what”. If we’re going to spend $1 trillion, let’s get it right. Rather than simply repair pipes, we need to turn to American ingenuity to help us reimagine a new infrastructure, and a new way to pay for it.
Most of our existing water systems were designed and engineered at a time when water and energy resources seemed limitless. As numerous water experts have noted, today’s technology is 20th century at best. We need 21st and 22nd century technologies that can handle the challenges of water and energy shortages, systems that can harvest stormwater, recycle wastewater and capture nutrients embedded in the waste, all while using less or even no net energy.
Many leading thinkers believe that we need more flexible water systems, which may mean employing decentralized designs and options that better integrate withnatural systems. We may also need to re-think the institutional design of our water utilities so that drinking water, stormwater and wastewater are built, financed and operated as one interconnected system.
Replacing decades old material without replacing the decades old thinking and strategy that are behind our water systems is not an efficient use of dollars. U.S. water infrastructure faces not only profound problems of aging components, but also outdated technology and inflexible governance systems ill-equipped to handle current consumption, environmental and economic problems.
In order to achieve more sustainable, resilient and cost-effective freshwater systems, we need bold new approaches to financing and operating U.S. water systems.
A report recently released by The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, Ceres and American Rivers, Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure, addresses many of these issues and concludes that rebuilding, operating, and financing our water systems as they are presently built would be a shortsighted mistake. In addition to technological innovations, the report also points out that we need financial systems that recognize the changing nature of our water and energy resources. Many of our current methods for utility financing rely too heavily on growth, government subsidies, and potentially risky assumptions about future water supplies.
Clean, safe water and sanitation are fundamental to our way of life and commerce. For the last half-century, most Americans have received water and sanitation at heavily subsidized rates, reinforcing the delusion that these services come cheap. Those days are over. But the good news is that we have an incredible opportunity to reboot our water infrastructure systems so that they’re resilient and sustainable for future generations to come.
Broaddus, Ph.D., M.B.A., is director, environment programs for the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. She is expected to testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee March 21.