The Need for a National Conversation about Water Infrastructure

Drought is once again becoming part of our daily vocabulary. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports at least 36 states are expected to face water shortages by the end of this year. Despite this alarming news, there are relatively few public demands for immediate action. Compare this quiescent mindset to the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when gas supply cutoffs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut sparked immediate outrage and cries for investigations.

Water scarcity isn't just about adequate supply sources. It's also about waste. In the United States, about 16 percent of treated water never reaches the tap, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates as a loss of 1.7 trillion gallons every year. This is the direct result of an aging and rapidly deteriorating system of pipes and plants that compose our nation's water infrastructure.

Safe and reliable water service is the lifeblood of our nation, essential to the survival of every individual, every family, and every business in every community across the United States. And if water service is our nation's lifeblood, then water infrastructure is its circulatory system. But the majority of that circulatory system was installed in the first half of the twentieth century - and once it was laid underground, an out of sight, out of mind mentality took over.

Over the years, systemic deferred maintenance and a lack of sufficient investment has resulted in a slow but predictable degradation. Water mains are particularly at risk, now breaking at an astounding rate of 650 per day, or 240,000 every single year - a number that is expected to increase with many pipes now approaching the end of their useful lives. These breaks have serious health and economic implications, often halting or impeding clean water delivery for days on end.

With the very real challenges of scarcity and service interruptions looming for millions of Americans, it is disturbing how infrequently this issue has appeared in news headlines. Recent estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) place the cost of repairing, replacing, and upgrading the nation's infrastructure at more than $600 billion over the next 20 years, and every year of inaction only increases that cost.

But this lack of attention to water is about to change in communities across the nation.

Addressing these issues requires a systemic, comprehensive plan that is rooted in every individual, family, and business understanding the challenges we face, as well as the consequences of inaction. To stimulate these conversations at the local level, the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) has partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to create the Water Is Your Business campaign, which launched at

At its core, Water Is Your Business is a grassroots advocacy tool, with the short-term goal of dramatically increasing the dialogue - informed by facts - on the critical importance of investing in our country's water infrastructure. Over the long term, Water Is Your Business will create a nationwide community of advocates and ambassadors who support and are willing to promote comprehensive solutions. The site includes current facts and figures, information and content about the realities of U.S. water infrastructure, and asks visitors to join the campaign and share it with their networks.

The time is right for this campaign, based on some very encouraging activities. Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the Chicago Infrastructure Trust to facilitate transformative infrastructure projects in the city by offering a range of financial tools to fund those projects, including private entities. And in Texas, the Legislature and the Perry Administration are considering bills to draw at least $2 billion from the state's emergency Rainy Day Fund to establish a water infrastructure bank that would fund improvement and replacement projects. Reports indicate the Texas proposal has a significant chance of enactment, with strong bipartisan support.

Chicago and Texas couldn't be less alike - with different geographies, politics, and urbanization - and yet both are having the kinds of conversations that need to happen nationwide. Time is of the essence, because though the challenge we face isn't insurmountable, continued inaction will only lead to even more drastic costs and waste in the future.

The new consciousness we hope to create through Water Is Your Business will drive a much-needed national conversation, starting at the local level, on the need for immediate and sufficient investment in water infrastructure. This investment not only will help reduce waste and alleviate water scarcity; it also will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help secure the future economic health of our nation's businesses and economy as a whole. These are results we can all applaud.

Michael Deane is executive director of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), a trade group representing companies that provide water services and the nation's leading authority on real-world water service solutions. He joined NAWC from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most recently serving as associate assistant administrator for water.