U.S. Water Infrastructure: FAIL (Almost)

The Water Innovations Alliance (WIA) recently completed an assessment of the state of the U.S. water infrastructure, which was given an overall grade of D- by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent infrastructure report card

Underlying that nearly failing grade, the WIA produced some startling statistics in a recent newsletter (not yet posted to their website):

  • More than 20% of water treatment systems in the U.S. — serving 49 million people — have violated provisions of the  Safe Drinking Water Act at some point in the past 5 years.
  • About 15% of municipal water is lost to leaks, representing 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water PER DAY. 
  • The U.S. water system represents more than 4% of total U.S. electricity usage.
  • Up to 20 years of significant investment are required to stabilize and modernize the U.S. water infrastructure, with around $300 billion capital required.

From this background, the WIA urges for the adoption of “smart water grid” technologies — much of which data-driven and IT-related — to upgrade the U.S. water system.  The WIA projects that a $20 billion investment in smart water grid technologies can generate $100 billion in annual savings through reduced losses and energy consumption — in addition to improving environmental performance (less chemical treatment required, fewer regulatory violations, better human health).

The question that WIA leaves unaddressed is how to motivate these smart water grid investments — especially when they appear to have such good financial returns. 

Alas, unlike some other countries, most of the U.S. water system is publicly-owned by government agencies:  Federal, state and municipal.  As everyone knows, governments are not exactly flush with spare cash, and even though the returns seem attractive, the up-front capital increment of $20 billion is daunting — and not likely to be supported by frustrated taxpayers and voters, who don’t want to spend an extra dime.

Even if this financing hurdle could somehow be overcome, there is still the problem that most publicly-owned water organizations are — how should I put this? — saddled with people and processes that make them lethargic, resistant to change, and risk-averse. 

Note that there are 53,000 water systems in the U.S., with 83% of them serving fewer than 3,300 people.  These are typically small-town, mom-and-pop operations, staffed with — well — not the best-and-brightest.  Many of the cost savings that can be achieved with investment in the water sector would reduce the need for someone to get in his truck and drive down to fix something, and in this economy, decision-makers in the public sector are not terribly keen to eliminate jobs.  In other words, smart technologies can and often do replace not-so-smart people — many of whom are friends, neighbors and relatives.

The WIA’s report is provocative, and hopefully will stimulate more effort to surmount the financing and institutional impediments to investing in a smart water grid.  Even so, it won’t be easy getting the U.S. water infrastructure to improve upon its nearly-failing grade.