Viewpoints

Viewpoint: Smart water management is good for the economy

by American City & County Contributor
May 01, 2012

Address failing water infrastructure now for a stronger future

By Laurent Auguste

Americans are generally unaware of the looming water infrastructure failures right beneath their feet and have yet to put water resources high on their lists of concerns. They are more concerned about the recovery of the economy, job stability and providing for their families — and rightfully so. But make no mistake: The declining state of U.S. water infrastructure directly affects the ability of cities to grow and prosper.

Global business leaders are realizing that without water, the economy does not work and jobs literally dry up. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission says that water quality and availability “can have material effects on companies.” Access to reliable, affordable water supplies and infrastructure is a simple, but essential, component for business sustainability, product development and community growth.

The research keeps piling up in support of the need for greater investment in our deteriorating water infrastructure.   

  • A study by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates the cost of repairing and expanding buried U.S. drinking water infrastructure will top $1 trillion in the next 25 years, an expense AWWA predicts will be met primarily through higher water bills and local fees. That is just for underground water infrastructure such as water pipes — not for drinking water facilities or wastewater collection systems and facilities.
  • In its most recent infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) presented both water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. with a grade of “D-“ and estimated a combined five-year spending gap of $108 billion.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has noted that leaky pipes account for the loss of 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water each day — enough to supply approximately 60 million people with their daily needs.

Despite the dire picture painted by those studies, local officials and water managers are struggling to convince lawmakers and the general public that greater investments are necessary. Without billions of dollars readily available for projects, many cities are being forced to make difficult budgetary decisions.

But there is good news. There are approaches that cities can take to better manage their water systems now and smartly invest in their communities.

  • Make the connection between water and economic vitality. The relationship between water and the environment is well known. Beyond that, progressive city managers and thought leaders should view water resources and infrastructure as valuable assets that can be used to stimulate a community’s economic health and growth.
  • Share best practices. As many local and regional water managers operate in relative isolation, they value opportunities to tap into the experiences of others to make better informed decisions. Local officials and water managers need to share their successful strategies with colleagues through conferences, articles and meetings, and seek out public and private sector experiences for new ideas.
  • Use public-private partnerships. Public authorities typically manage several water and wastewater facilities. In contrast, private-sector water companies typically manage several hundred or even several thousand facilities and systems. Through competition and experience, private companies have evolved and can offer local water managers access to a unique network of experts, experiences and best practices.  

Poor management or a gap in infrastructure means a community is vulnerable to higher water rates, greater long-term debt and future economic challenges. Cities cannot ignore the water infrastructure issues they are facing today or those that may be coming in the next few years. As water-related issues escalate in major cities across the country, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the important role of water must be recognized and smartly managed to improve conditions for people, the environment and job growth.

Laurent Auguste is president and CEO for Chicago-based Veolia Water North America. He can be reached at Laurent.Auguste@veoliawaterna.com.

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