Why Infrastructure Should Matter to Water Ratepayers

Co-authored by Carole Baker, president and CEO, Texas Water Foundation

It's "Infrastructure Week," and a nonpartisan coalition of public- and private-sector stakeholders has chosen May 16 to 23 to promote the need for government to invest in improvements to "roads, bridges, rails, ports, airports, pipes, the power grid, [and] broadband."

The mantra is #InfrastructureMatters, and the call to action? "Leaders at all levels are going to need to finally wake up and commit to building a long-term, sustainable plan to invest in America's infrastructure."

We agree. But just as important as government action -- if not more important -- is the need for consumers to demand action. And when it comes to upgrading our tremendous water infrastructure, they must first understand it.

Let's first talk about consumer demand. It took 195 countries more than 20 years of global meetings to negotiate the famous United Nations Paris Climate Agreement signed last December. Successful implementation of that agreement - especially in the U.S. - is another story.

Whether it's curbing carbon dioxide emissions or improving water infrastructure, consumers can no longer afford to wait around for business and government to implement much-needed change. We must demand it. We must expect it.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, $4.8 trillion must be invested in our aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. But how do we expect water ratepayers to absorb these costs when most don't know where their water comes from, or understand the amazing -- but aging -- infrastructure that brings us safe drinking water?

Clean water doesn't just magically materialize in our drinking glasses, bathtubs, or clothes washers, any more than roads  --  poof!  --  just suddenly appear to take us to work, or electricity magically powers our homes and workplaces in the heat of the summer. But roads and electrical lines are very visible. Our water infrastructure is not. Out of sight, out of mind.

According to a 2011 Nature Conservancy poll, 77 percent of Americans "were unable to correctly identify their source of drinking water." That is consistent with similar polls we have taken over the past 12 years. In 2004, we found that only 28 percent of Texans said they "definitely know" the natural source of their drinking water. We re-fielded the same poll in 2014 and guess how many Texans knew where their water comes from? 28 percent. Just for fun, this past Friday we fielded the same question among 100 American households, and only 31 said they definitely know their natural water source (SurveyMonkey, online).

So, it's pretty well established that the majority of Americans don't know where their water comes from. But there is a silver lining. We've found a strong connection between knowledge of water sources and willingness to conserve. For the past 10 years, the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) has been educating the ratepayers in its region that Lavon Lake is its primary water source. Despite a population increase of 49 percent in the region since 2000, the NTMWD has been able to curb projected peak-day consumption by 200 million to 400 million gallons every summer since 2006.

That's important, but in focus groups held last December, North Texans admitted they don't know much about their water infrastructure. They were astounded to learn that the average American consumes 80 to 100 gallons of water every day (U.S. Geological Survey). They also said they want to learn more about what it takes to get their water from Lavon Lake to their homes. So, for the first time in a decade, NTMWD will dedicate its summertime advertising campaign not just to water source and conservation awareness, but to education about its entire water infrastructure.

With trillions of dollars to invest in our U.S. water infrastructure over the next 20 years, it makes sense that the more people know where their water comes from -- and how it gets to them -- the more understanding they will be when rates go up and things go wrong (drought, water main breaks, algal blooms, water contamination, etc.).

In 2014, we conducted a survey that found that most Americans underestimate the average age of our pipelines (it's actually 47 years), and that half felt paying $82 more per year by 2020 to cover infrastructure improvements is "unfair" (statistics from Value of Water Coalition). In California, an April 2016 statewide poll by Probolsky Research found that only 41 percent of ratepayers "are willing to pay higher water rates to ensure a safe, reliable, high-quality supply of drinking water."

What's going on with the other 59 percent (the majority of whom strongly disagree)?

Ratepayers must understand how water gets from its original source to homes and businesses and back to the source again. Right now, water is America's most essential but most neglected resource. Let's change that by educating ratepayers to know that #WaterInfrastructureMatters.

Valerie Salinas-Davis is co-founder and CEO of EnviroMedia. Carole Baker is president and CEO of the Texas Water Foundation and a founding board member of the Alliance for Water Efficiency. They can be found on Twitter @enviromedia and @TexasWaterFND. [Disclosure: NTMWD is an EnviroMedia client.]