Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The quality of drinking water in the United States remains high, but legacy and emerging contaminants continue to require close attention. While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. According to the American Water Works Association, an estimated $1 trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.
The United States uses 42 billion gallons of water a day to support daily life from cooking and bathing in homes to use in factories and offices across the country. Around 80% of drinking water in the U.S. comes from surface waters such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and oceans, with the remaining 20% from groundwater aquifers. In total, there are approximately 155,000 active public drinking water systems across the country. Most Americans – just under 300 million people – receive their drinking water from one of the nation’s 51,356 community water systems. Of these, just 8,674 systems, or approximately 17%, serve close to 92% of the total population, or approximately 272.6 million people. Small systems that serve the remaining 8% of the population frequently lack both economies of scale and financial, managerial, and technical capacity, which can lead to problems of meeting Safe Drinking Water Act standards.
While drinking water infrastructure is funded primarily through a rate-based system, the investment has been inadequate for decades and will continue to be underfunded without significant changes as the revenue generated will fall short as needs grow.According to the American Water Works Association, upgrading existing water systems and meeting the drinking water infrastructure needs of a growing population will require at least $1 trillion.
Municipal drinking water consumption in the United States has declined by 5% this decade, marking the first time in nearly 40 years that water use at home has decreased. Total freshwater withdrawals this decade continue to decline in almost every sector including agriculture, industrial, domestic, and thermoelectric. This is primarily due to increased efficiencies and the reduction in withdrawals for retired coal-fired power plants.
Drinking water quality in the United States remains the safest in the world. The EPA sets legal limits for over 90 contaminants in drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) allows states to set and enforce their own drinking water standards as long as the standards meet or exceed EPA’s minimum national standards. Smaller systems that serve under 10,000 people report that a lack of resources and personnel can limit the frequency of testing, monitoring, maintenance, and technical capability in their systems. With sufficient funding and proper oversight, these risks can be mitigated and water quality can remain safe.
America’s drinking water infrastructure doesn’t stop at pipe, reservoir, pump station, and treatment plant upgrades; many threats to drinking water infrastructure can be attributed to the sources of drinking water, such as polluted water bodies, depleted aquifers, and inadequate storage. As watersheds continue to be impacted by shifting migration patterns, land use changes, consumption trends, and extreme weather, water infrastructure upgrades will be required to meet new demands. With proper planning, education, and conservation utilities are making strides to ensure demand is met for decades to come. Water conservation and improvements in water-use efficiency appear to have gained a general acceptance among water utilities as a sensible practice of water management. According to the American Water Works Association, a majority of utilities –74%– have a formal conservation program, and 86% consider conserved water as one of their water supply alternatives. Additionally, many communities that have separate drinking water and wastewater departments are beginning to work together or even consolidate, creating “one water” utilities that manage water more holistically.
Raising the Grades
Solutions that Work Now
Reinvigorate the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) program under the Safe Drinking Water Act through permanent reauthorization and tripling the amount of annual appropriations.
Fully fund the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at its authorized level.
Preserve tax exempt municipal bond financing. Low‐cost access to capital helps keep lending for drinking water upgrades strong and accessible for communities large and small.
Establish a federal Water Infrastructure Trust Fund to finance the national shortfall in funding of infrastructure systems under the Clean Water Act.
Eliminate the state cap on private activity bonds for water infrastructure projects to bring an estimated $6 to $7 billion annually in new private financing.
Encourage utilities to take regional approaches for water delivery to take advantage of economies of scale.
Increase federal support and funding for green infrastructure, watershed permitting, and other programs that promote the concept of “one water” to protect source watersheds.
Encourage utilities to conduct revenue forecasting models to determine the necessary rate revenues over a period of time and then institute rates that reflect the true cost of supplying clean, reliable drinking water.
Encourage utilities to undertake asset management programs.
Increase federal and local support for vocational training in the drinking water sector as engineers, operators, and maintenance staff begin to retire in large numbers.
Support and advance conservation ballot measures that protect source water through dedicated funding to land and water protection.
Utility managers must remain diligent to ensure science-based decisions control operations and facility function. While lead and other contaminants post significant health concerns when ignored, with proper funding safe and clean drinking water can be ensured.