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Water Management Lessons From an Unlikely Source

The United States has a lot to learn from the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. The underfunded utility dug the Cambodian capital's water infrastructure out of the rubble of Pol Pot's regime.
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The United States has a lot to learn from the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. The underfunded utility dug the Cambodian capital's water infrastructure out of the rubble of Pol Pot's regime and now supplies fresh, clean water to Phnom Penh's 1.3 million residents, rich and poor. Delivery is reliable, rates are reasonable, and the efficiency of the system -- a measure of how much water reaches its destination instead of leaking out of broken infrastructure -- is an impressive 94.1 percent, with a goal of 96 percent by 2020. (In contrast, a 2002 report by the Congressional Budget Office estimated water loss to leakage in many U.S. drinking water delivery systems steals as much as 20 percent of the flow.)

The stunning success of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority's efforts has earned them this year's coveted Stockholm Industry Water Award, international recognition of its commitment and ingenuity.

Generally, we like to think of ourselves as a fountain of great examples for people in the developing world to follow. But American cities frequently suffer water main breaks. The all-too-common blowouts illustrate that our aging water system, much of which dates back a century or more, is overwhelmed and undermaintained.

Los Angeles is responsible for more than 7,200 miles of pipe. New York City's water and sewer departments alone are responsible for more than 6,500 miles of water mains and another 6,000 miles of sewer pipe -- enough to build a tunnel from Penn Station to Phnom Penh and still have enough left over to dig from Grand Central to Los Angeles. Thousands more miles of pipe snake through the suburbs.

It's not the city water departments' fault. Thousands of miles of pipe -- plus the pumping stations and other features that service it -- is a lot to look after, especially on a shoestring budget. Our whole country's water infrastructure is falling apart, and year after year, we as a nation pass up the opportunity to maintain or improve it. In fact, last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a D-minus.

The Society's report card points out that drinking water systems in the U.S. experience an $11-billion investment shortfall every year, falling behind by that astronomical figure that doesn't even account for future growth in demand. Over the next 20 years, according to an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited in the report card, our nation will fall behind on maintenance, operations and capital expenditures by as much as $263 billion.

Between 1997 and 2008, Congress approved about $9.5 billion per year in funds to match state investments. That helps in the most dire circumstances, but it's less than 10 percent of the amount required just to keep up with aging pipes and maintenance. The Stimulus Package authorized by Congress last year injected just $7 billion into water infrastructure projects. That's less than one percent of the stimulus funds -- just a fraction of the jobs, contracts and vital infrastructure we need nationwide.

Let's face it. There's not a lot of sex appeal in investing in drinking water mains or sewer pipes. Most of us would never actually see the results.

But a reliable water supply is critical to protecting public health. When leaking sewer pipes meet leaking drinking water mains, it's a recipe for disaster -- the kinds of disease epidemics that can devastate entire cities. When water supplies fail, industry stops. Unreliable water supplies can force companies to relocate their factories, labs and offices, taking jobs with them.

And every drop of water is directly connected to a drop of oil or other valuable energy source. For example, 20 to 25 percent of California's electricity is devoted to pumping water. We also use tremendous amounts of energy to purify water for drinking and treat wastewater for discharge. To know that such valuable water and energy are being leached out of our state through broken pipes is heartbreaking.

Our nation became a world power in large part because of our water supply - safe, abundant and reliable.

When the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority began revitalizing its city's water system in 1993, the challenges were almost insurmountable. The maps and documentation needed to locate the pipes had been destroyed. The water treatment plant built by the French a century ago was in ruins. All the engineers had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. The military and the rich were siphoning off water for free, while the poor were paying exorbitant rates to suppliers who would cart water into unserved neighborhoods. Corruption was rampant.

Despite the obstacles, the Phnom Penh team created a world-class water delivery system. In the U.S., we are slowly coming to recognize how precious our water is, and we have done an impressive job in water conservation in our homes and offices. We have skilled engineers and experienced, dedicated workers. We have the maps, resources and tools to find our pipes and identify our problems. We have the world's best technology at our disposal. All we need now is the funding and the will - which must come from the politicians and the voters -- to dedicate ourselves to repairing and maintaining our water infrastructure.

With that, we can protect the public health, strengthen our economy and catch up to the remarkable success of Phnom Penh.