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Water: The Forgotten Infrastructure Challenge?

Bill DiBenedetto | Thursday April 15th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Among the usual items that make up U.S. infrastructure challenges, including land development, roads, bridges and a host of other transportation needs, it’s time to add water systems to the list, according to a report released Tuesday by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young.

In fact, our “water profligacy” is well, just way too profligate, the 102-page report, Infrastructure in 2010: An Investment Imperative, says.

An increasing number of urban areas throughout the U.S. are facing growing pressures on their existing water infrastructure systems, meaning that more investment is needed for repairs and upgrades. Perhaps even more important, a change in development patterns and attitudes that are “more conducive to conservation” is also needed.

The report cites “water profligacy as an American way of life,” adding: “Most water districts do not charge ratepayers full outlays for constructing and maintaining systems … As a result, businesses and households tend to use water inefficiently and don’t conserve even though per capita water demand could outstrip future availability in some parts of the country. We are starting to see the limits of where people can go (to live).”

This supply/demand problem spreads nationwide from the arid regions of California, Colorado and Arizona to humid Georgia and Florida. The report says that the U.S. has the highest “water footprint” in the world, using nearly 656,000 gallons per capita annually, greatly outstripping the far more populous China, which uses less than 186,000 gallons per capita annually.

There are four main water challenges: Old, rusting and dilapidated pipes that leak and are in danger of collapse; fast-growth regions that can’t sustain land or water use patterns and practices; contamination threats, mainly from industrial chemicals and agricultural run-off that permeates groundwater and settles into drinking sources; and the widespread failure to conserve.

On the last point the report states the nation’s water use has more than doubled since 1950 due to water waste and to neglected leaks amounting to 1.25 trillion gallons each year, equal to the total annual consumption of Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago combined.

Infrastructure 2010 also finds that of the 14 metropolitan areas examined in the report, all but three – Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia and Atlanta – have conservation programs in place. That’s an encouraging indication that many local governments are trying to change consumer behavior, but each area faces many challenges, including old pipes, uncertain water supply and “struggles with regional cooperation.”

LA is the only city facing all three of those issues, the report continues, making its water problems particularly urgent.

The integration of more concentrated land development into water management can reduce runoff and combat waste, states the report. One example: the runoff from eight homes on eight acres totals 149,600 cubic feet per year, while the runoff from eight homes on one acre totals 39,600 cubic feet per year, with the denser development saving both water and land.

“Changing growth patterns in response to dwindling resources will not come easy to a nation that is not accustomed to conserving water or land,” said ULI Executive Vice President Maureen McAvey, in a statement. “But it’s clear that regional and local problems with both water quantity and quality will continue without a broad-based cutback in public water consumption and a change in how and where we build. Water infrastructure must be viewed through the lens of sustainable growth.”

Infrastructure 2010 is the fourth of an annual overview series that analyzes the infrastructure needs and compares the infrastructure policies of the U.S. with other countries. Previous editions focused primarily on transportation systems, consistently finding that the U.S. continues to lag behind Asia and Europe in investments in transit systems, making its urban areas less competitive globally.

This year the report adds water infrastructure to the mix – accessibility and availability, treatment and delivery – and highlights water issues in 14 U.S. cities as illustrative of the problems looming throughout much of urban America. The cities studied are: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.  Together, these cities and surrounding metropolitan areas are expected to gain an additional 60 million residents between now and 2030, reinforcing the critical need to better coordinate land use planning with water availability.

So where is the model when it comes to water use? Not in the U.S., apparently. The report points to Australia as a model for water conservation, stormwater capture and recycling, as well as “more condensed land development practices.”

In the U.S. the keys to solving the water, land use and transportation infrastructure problems include better collaboration among different governing entities, the incorporation of land use planning into infrastructure planning and (uh-oh) acceptance of higher use costs as a necessity.

Paying more is called “facing reality,” but that’s always a difficult drink of water to swallow in these parts.


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  • netdragon

    One word: Desalinization