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Aging water infrastructure wastes 1.7 trillion gallons a year

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It's hard to care about water infrastructure when we can't see it. But a new survey shows that once educated about how wasteful our system has become, Americans care deeply about fixing this problem.

Last week, ITT Corp. announced the results of its Value of Water Survey, a nationwide poll that measured the public’s awareness of the nation’s aging water infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, the survey showed that many of us are concerned about our water system. But Colin Sabol, vice president of marketing and business development in ITT’s Fluid and Motion Control division, says since we can’t see the underground pipes, they don’t get as much attention as, say, potholes. According to the report, every day there are 650 water main breaks. And according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, leaking pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water a day.

So what does this mean, and what will it take the fix the problem? To get some answers, I talked to Sabol. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

You just released the Value of Water Survey. What surprised you the most?

One thing that surprised me personally was how much voters value water today. Ninety-five percent said they value water more than any other service they get—heat, cable. Even their cell phone. I guess that’s not surprising--you can’t live without water--but they do value it highly. But it’s also one of the smallest bills they pay.

What was the general response to the survey findings?

Very positive. There’s been a lot of people in the industry who know this issue well, and this survey revealed that consumers who understand the issue are concerned about it too.

People who are in the industry—who supply equipment to the industry or who run the municipal water plants and operate these plants—have known for a long time that the water infrastructure needs attention. It needs more investment.

Why isn’t the infrastructure getting the funding it needs?

The primary reason: It’s literally out of sight. It’s buried. Sixty-nine percent of the people who took the survey said it’s something they take for granted. They assume when they turn on the water it’ll be there, and it usually is.

Can you explain the state of our water infrastructure and how bad it really is?

Probably the most important thing is that we lose 1.7 trillion gallons of water every year from our water infrastructure in the United States. That’s clean water that has already been treated. It costs about $2.6 billion a year, that we just waste. That’s about what the federal government puts in to the water infrastructure annually. We also lose about 10 billion gallons of raw sewage into our lakes and rivers every year because of sewer overflows.

Going back to what you just said: Can you put that 1.7 trillion gallons in context? I have no idea how much that is.

It’s the amount that the top 10 cities consume in a year. If you could take all the leaks and feed it into one faucet it would take care of our top 10 cities.

The amount of money [currently invested in the system] doesn’t allow us to detect leaks and repair infrastructure. The sad part abut this is that the technology is there; we just need to make it a priority.

When there’s a pothole in the road, people make calls and complain, and it’s repaired. It’s not the same with the water infrastructure because it’s underground and nobody can see it.

Your study shows that Americans are willing to pay an average of 11 percent more on their water bill each month to help ensure continued access to a reliable and consistent supply of clean water. What’s the significance of this?

The important caveat to that is that when we spoke and interviewed and surveyed to more than 1,000 people, they responded that way once they were educated about the issue. So we learned we need to do a better job educating people and policymakers.

What is ITT’s role in this?

We did the survey because we wanted to help the industry get a message out, but ITT Is in the business of water. We are one of the largest manufacturers of pumps that pump clean water and wastewater, and we make water treatment equipment and prepare it for drinking. We’re a major player in the industry, and as such, we see these issues every day. We wanted to make sure consumers and politicians understand what’s going on.

Is the infrastructure worse in some regions?

There are certain areas not blessed with natural rainfall. The southwestern areas, the Colorado River area—are what we call water-scarce areas. So they tend to have more significant natural water issues; but all across the country we have decaying infrastructure. Those issuea grow more pronounced when there is less rainfall. And those areas that were developed over 100 years ago—the Northeast and Midwest—tend to have older infrastructure.

What do you predict for our water infrastructure five or 10 years down the road?

Every day we waste water and energy, and every day it gets a little worse. It’s been getting worse for decades, and it’s reached a point where we believe it’s time to do something about it. If we ignore it, it won’t become a huge problem overnight, but it’s time to start paying more attention.

The issue’s not going to go away by itself. The EPA did a study in 2002 where they rated the quality of our water infrastructure, and the rating was D-minus. They said it would take half a trillion dollars to fix all the water infrastructure at once. The Congressional Budget Office said if you spent $19 billion a year more you would catch up with these problems. So we are under-investing annually that much. The federal government today only spends a couple billion a year. The vast majority comes from local tariffs and local and municipal governments.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure