If You’re Going to Fix It, Why Not Improve It?

Infrastructure Insight

When it comes to the nation’s drinking water, maybe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Findings from a study by the American Water Works Association (AWWA)) dare to ask the question: If the U.S. needs to spend the $1 trillion in infrastructure costs to repair and expand its drinking water system – as the water association estimates and is also acknowledged by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) – why do it with outdated thinking, materials and technology?

Bill for Ohio’s Drinking Water Needs: $9.68 B

According to a 2010 update of ASCE’s Ohio’s Infrastructure Report Card, Ohio’s drinking water is among the worst of the state’s 11 infrastructure systems. Ohio’s drinking water infrastructure earned a grade of “D+” – slightly better than the “D” earned by the road and transit systems.

The report states: “An estimated 99 percent of the burden for funding public water supply systems is borne by local government. It is estimated that Ohio has $9.68 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs.”

Source: OhioASCE.org

According to the ASCE, the nation’s drinking water received the worst grade (D-) of any infrastructure system in its most recent Report Card forAmerica’s Infrastructure.

Lynn Broaddus, of The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, said spending the estimated $1 trillion needed to repair theUnited States’ existing water system and not use the latest technology, would be like “investing in room-sized mainframe computers running on punch cards rather than moving to laptops, tablets and cloud storage.” Broaddus, director of Environment Programs for the group that released a January 2012 report, “Charting New Waters, Financing Sustainable Water Infrastructure,” points out that much of the nation’s water infrastructure – millions of miles of pipes, treatment plants and pump stations – dates back to the 1901-1909 Theodore Roosevelt Administration.

While Broaddus notes that recent hearings in the U.S. House and Senate demonstrate that Congress is open to the idea of financing solutions for the nation’s water infrastructure system, she cautions to not just repair the current system – which loses 6 billion gallons of treated water daily because of leaky and aging pipes. She insists on the use of modern technology to improve the system.

“Most of our existing water systems were designed and engineered at a time when water and energy resources seemed limitless. As numerous water experts have noted, today’s technology is 20th century at best,” Broaddus said. “We need 21st and 22nd century technologies that can handle the challenges of water and energy shortages, systems that can harvest stormwater, recycle wastewater and capture nutrients embedded in the waste, all while using less or even no net energy.”

Broaddus and other “leading thinkers” believe replacing decades-old infrastructure without also replacing decades-old thinking and strategies for U.S.water systems would be an inefficient use of money. Utilizing 21st and 22nd century technology could mean a combination of “employing decentralized designs and options that better integrate with natural systems,” as well as an “institutional design of our water utilities so that drinking water, stormwater and wastewater are built, financed and operated as one interconnected system.”

Another aspect of 21st and 22nd century thinking is the ending of subsidies. According to Broaddus, in her article, “America’s Troubled Water Infrastructure,” which appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog, “Most Americans have received water and sanitation at heavily subsidized rates, reinforcing the delusion that these services come cheap. Those days are over.”

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