Every day in the United States, 2.45 billion gallons of treated drinking water are reported as lost or unbilled, the majority of it lost to leaking pipes. Averaged out among Washington and the 50 states, that's more than 48 million gallons lost or unbilled per state, per day.
What would your state do with an extra 48 million gallons per day? Pass the savings on to the customers is one answer. Getting an opportunity to even ask that question is the key.
For too many years, our federal, state and local leaders have treated our crumbling, deteriorating water-pipe networks like the dust that gets swept under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind.
That's simply out of touch.
While the infrastructure topic is not the sexiest, it's the time bomb no one wants to go off on their watch. It's received a moderate amount of attention in the mainstream press. The “sky is falling” approach has been most often used when discussing drinking water and the pipe systems that transport it.
Most news reports talk about the bad news:
* Every year, up to 3.6 million illnesses in the United States are caused by the accidental release of untreated sewage due to overburdened or failed systems.
* Recent national reports estimate that there is a $23 billion funding gap per year for each of the next 20 years that must be bridged to pay for upgrades necessary to ensure that the nation's drinking-water and waste-water pipes and treatment facilities can continue providing safe, clean and affordable water to the nation.
Typical responses are desperate pleas from water officials and community leaders to the citizens to conserve our most precious resource. Don't wash your car! Don't water your lawn! It's usually presented as the public's job to keep this issue from becoming a full-blown disaster.
We're long overdue to start talking about long-term solutions — the good news. There's no reason to continue losing this much water. We can quench a lot of thirst — not to mention wash a lot of cars and water a lot of lawns — with an extra 2.45 billion gallons of clean water per day.
One might think that local solutions, like increased water and waste-water rates, should be enough to solve the problem. Unfortunately, they only address a portion of the problem. Financing the full $23 billion funding gap with utility rate increases would result in doubling or tripling of water rates across the nation. If this were to happen, at least a third of the U.S. population would have to pay more than 4 percent of their household income for water and sewer. Small, rural and low-income communities would be hit the hardest, since per-capita costs are highest in smaller systems.
Funding for water infrastructure improvements must be a priority. But our public officials must make good decisions on how to use those dollars. Construction specifications that were written and approved decades ago are still being followed in 2003. Pipe is being installed for a water system in a U.S. city right now that is prone to leaks, is subject to corrosion and is eating up large amounts of very tight budgets. Why?
It doesn't have to be that way. The member companies that make up the Plastics Pipe Institute are doing everything in their power to effect positive change. High density polyethylene pipe is installed using leak-free joints and is physically unable to corrode.
It's 2003, and our water pipes need help. Yesterday's materials are failing — sometimes in catastrophic proportions. If 2.45 billion gallons are being lost every day, multiplying that by 365 days, year after year, totals a number too large to swallow.
Rich Gottwald is executive director of the Plastics Pipe Institute in Washington.