Money is Flowing Towards America’s Leaky Water Infrastructure

By: David Jay
It’s no secret that America’s water infrastructure is in a state of crisis. Water infrastructure in the US is functioning far past its designed operating life, with a water main breaking somewhere in the US about once every two minutes. All those leaky pipes waste about 1.7 trillion gallons of water a year, or about 17% of the US public water supply.

According to ITT’s recent Value of Water survey, American voters are waking up to the issue. Ninety five percent of voters rate water as “extremely important,” more important than services like heat or energy. 80 percent stated that water infrastructure was in need of reform, and 63 percent stated that they would pay an average of 11 percent more for water to address the problem.

Charging more for water has been a hot button political issue for years, and there is a big gap between accepting a rate increase on a survey and accepting one in real life. Still, the survey indicates that consumers are willing to spend dollars and exert political muscle to keep water clean and reliable, as illustrated by this recent PSA:

Industrial water users are also paying more serious attention to risks posed by disruptions in the water supply. 2010 saw the first shareholder resolution focused explicitly on water risk, while last week’s Businesses for Social Responsibility conference featured an in-depth discussion on how businesses should measure and report on water. The discussion hinged in large part on how businesses like Intel and SABMiller should balance internal investment in water efficiency, with investment in the kind of pipe-fixing that the community’s around them desperately need. The latter can be perceived as greenwashing but is often more cost effective. Gary Niekerk of Intel estimates that every dollar it spent on water-saving community grant projects yielded $10 in water savings.

If both domestic ratepayers and industrial users are willing to put up money to prevent the risks posed by a failing infrastructure it’s time to figure out how to spend that money most effectively. Simply digging up old, leaky pipe and replacing it is extremely inefficient, since leaks and about-to-burst pipe are hard to locate precisely and most pipe is expensive to access. Rebuilding old infrastructure pipe by pipe also misses a powerful opportunity to reinvent a system built on the premise that both water and the energy required were abundant resources. Repairing our water infrastructure will mean investing in new technologies which take radical new perspectives on the purification and delivery of water.

Last week in LA the Cleantech Group held a conference to explore the most exciting and profitable of those solutions. Innovators in water are focusing on three core areas:

  • Smart sensors to identify where water is being used or wasted
  • Point-of-use efficiency technologies to reduce demand at the end of the pipe and
  • Energy recapture technologies to grab the massive amount of energy that we use to move water and feed it back into the grid

With problems this big and a looming of an influx of demand, it’s an exciting time for anyone with high-leverage solutions. Watch competitions like Cleantech Open and Imagine H2O for the hottest ideas in this space.

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