Oct. 19, 2020 | InBrief

A day without water: Addressing the issues impacting water utilities

The water industry is facing challenges that must be addressed sooner than later to avoid a potential public health and safety crisis

October 21 is Value of Water’s 6th annual Imagine a Day Without Water, a national education campaign to highlight how water is essential, invaluable, and in need of investment.  

As communities across the U.S. face the COVID-19 public health threat, water and wastewater systems continue to do their job to keep water flowing, despite doing so with antiquated systems, technology, and infrastructure.  

Decades of underfunding has caught up to us 

It is no secret that investment in our water infrastructure is lacking, and disruptions will become more common as water systems age. Pipe breaks increased by 27% between 2012 and 2018 and are expected to increase by 600% in 20 years if we do not increase investment in our systems.  

At the current rate of replacement, it would take roughly 200 years, or double the useful life of pipes, to replace the entire water system. If funding needs and infrastructure investment trends continue, the annual gap will grow to $136 billion by 2039. Over 20 years, the cumulative water and wastewater capital investment need will soar to $3.27 trillion.

This underinvestment can be attributed to the failure of traditional financing mechanisms to meet the level of need. Rates are kept low to maintain affordability, and available revolving funds make up only a small fraction of the nation’s total water spend, ultimately leaving a chronic funding gap when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.

Additional challenges facing the industry

While infrastructure modernization is a complex and critical issue, the water industry must simultaneously address other increasingly important challenges:  

  • Climate risk: Increases in rainfall can cause water quality impacts. Storm, combined sewer, and wastewater systems are becoming overwhelmed by the increased volume of water and runoff containing sediment, nutrients, pollutants, etc., which is washed into surface waters. This contamination can lead to higher treatment costs. Conversely, other areas face extreme drought and water scarcity. Enduring drought will lead to large population migrations as people, animals, and industries seek out water rich areas. This significant shift will challenge utilities to meet and balance the needs of their customers with ecosystems and industries. 
  • Cyberthreats: Water utilities are using more automation, sensors, and devices in their water and wastewater systems than ever before. While beneficial in many ways, the implementation of new technologies also brings security concerns. Data must be accessible and actionable to the right parties but fully secure from malicious actors.  
  • Need for analytics: A modernized water infrastructure landscape brings opportunities to gain insights into the utility’s water system, but it also presents a challenge of how to use the data most effectively to extract value for the utility and customers.
  • Customer service expectations: Customers have grown accustomed to having their needs fulfilled with the touch of a button. This convenience has raised expectations of customer service across all industries, and the water industry is now starting to embrace new approaches to customer experience.

Economic benefits to infrastructure investment 

Investing in water can create cascading economic benefits, from raising GDP to creating jobs and increasing wages. If the U.S. covered half of the capital investment needs, it would generate more than 700,000 jobs, raise wages by $2 trillion, and increase GDP by $3.5 trillion above baseline projections. As we face the largest economic recession in a generation, investing in water provides a path to economic recovery.

Creativity, engagement, trust, and stepping out of comfort zones will be required for the water industry to upgrade their infrastructure to build a resilient system to deliver affordable and high-quality water to customers in the face of climate change. A lack of available clean water would be a public health and safety crisis, and solving these challenges is going to take consumer, utility, and government support.

Our team discusses these challenges and trends, and how water utilities can best take action. Read the report.

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