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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Investments in Water Infrastructure Are Crucial for Long-Term Resilience

U.S. water infrastructure is old and crumbling, and booming cities, coupled with increased treatment requirements, are both adding to the strain.
By Kate Zerrenner
Water Infrastructure

Photo: the Rio Grande separating Mexico and Texas, and a region where many communities are held back by a lack of investment in water infrastructure

In Texas, we’re getting some much-needed rain. But as with everything in Texas, nothing is done in half-measures. We’ve been in a drought and typically September brings hurricanes to the coast and flooding inland. These trends have been increasing in intensity for the past few years in Texas and across the country as climate change progresses. The more intense booms and busts of weather events are putting stress on water infrastructure, particularly the parts that get clean water to our homes and businesses.

But climate change is not the only danger. Our water infrastructure is old and crumbling. The exploding populations in our cities coupled with increased treatment requirements is making a bad situation worse.

In its most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a “D” and wastewater a “D+”. Now, in a new report, Bridging the Water Gap, ASCE has outlined the costs to the economy if the investment gap in water infrastructure is not closed. Predictably, the costs are high.

What the report says about water infrastructure

ASCE says that between 2012 and 2018, the rate of water main breaks increased by 27 percent, which is an average of a break every two minutes. Further, when pipes break, the utility cannot sell the non-revenue water and must take a loss. These losses equal about 6 billion gallons of treated water per day—in 2019 alone, these losses amounted to $7.6 billion. Water utilities, often already operating on thin margins, struggle with the added financial pressure of patching infrastructure while losing revenue. To compound the situation, most of the systems were built using models and projections that are now out of date because of climate change.

According to the report, to meet increasing demands while the infrastructure is undergoing continued stress, the U.S. needs to invest $109 billion per year over the next twenty years. If not, it warns, the results to the U.S. economic will be severe. In addition to increasing household and municipal costs, many economic sectors will suffer. Electric power and agriculture, both inextricably linked to access to water, will compete with for limited water resources. But perhaps surprisingly, the most water-intensive industry is paint manufacturing, requiring 123 gallons per dollar of output. Many water-reliant businesses will likely face significant disruptions to operations, including retail, hospitality, data, and construction.

Marginalized communities suffer the most when we overlook water investments

While businesses, particularly manufacturing and service, will feel the bite of failing water infrastructure, it is important to remember the employees who work in those sectors. Communities of color and low-income communities typically suffer more from failing water infrastructure. Currently, more than two million Americans do not have access to adequate drinking water and sanitation.

In some areas of the country, the impact is severe. The study references another report, Closing the Water Access Gap, by the U.S. Water Alliance and Dig Deep. It highlights communities that still lack adequate access to water. One area highlighted are the colonias, unincorporated areas in the U.S. along the 1,248-mile Texas-Mexico border that lack infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads. Roughly 840,000 people live in the nearly 2,300 colonias. The median income is $29,928, compared to the U.S. median income of $52,762, and the majority of residents are U.S.-born.

The water issue is twofold in these communities: water stress and water access. Most people along the border get their water from the Rio Grande River, a river already drying from the effects of climate change and increasing demand. Add to that fact that most residents of colonias do not have access to safe, affordable water. In one colonia in El Paso, households are using on average 50-100 gallons of water per month per household, compared to the national average of 88 gallons per day. Further, people must collect or purchase water from wells or trucked water, which can add up to $250 per month. All during a pandemic and an economic crunch with Latinx citizens having the highest unemployment rates of all ethnic groups for the first time in history.

Improving water infrastructure must include fixing broken pipes, but it also must include installing and maintaining adequate infrastructure in marginalized communities. Closing the water infrastructure investment gap can empower economic development. By not closing the gap, we risk businesses becoming less competitive, household costs increasing, and greater public health risks. Climate change makes the problem worse, but investment can help even the odds.

Image credit: PxHere

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner