THE BLOG
05/11/2016 01:40 pm ET Updated May 12, 2017

Solving Complex Water Challenges Requires Multiple Solutions

This month, as America's attention is being drawn to Infrastructure Week (May 16-23), the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) wants to draw particular attention to a matter of national security--water infrastructure. We know the country's roads, bridges, rails, ports, airports, power grid, and broadband are important, but water utilities can make a compelling appeal that water is the foundation for all other infrastructure systems.

Water matters to the goods we produce and transport, and the companies that make and sell them. Water matters to our daily commutes and our summer vacations. Water matters to the power grid. Water is necessary for public health. Water saturates every aspect of our life, and it stands to reason that the systems delivering water are as valuable as the water itself.

Founded in 1895 by a small group of water companies in Pennsylvania, the NAWC today has members located throughout the nation ranging from large companies owning, operating or partnering with hundreds of utilities in multiple states to individual utilities serving a few hundred customers. NAWC's state and regional chapters work closely with legislators at every level of government, and support public policies that increase public and private investment in water infrastructure.

This year, at least one private water company is celebrating 200 years of providing water service to its customers. York Water Company, based in York, Pennsylvania, began providing customers with much-needed water service in 1816. Over the last two centuries private water companies, regulated by state and federal governments, have become a staple of America's economic landscape by reliably and responsibly providing more than 73 million Americans clean drinking water from the tap. In fact, the water industry, including private water companies, has done its job so well that Americans expect water from the tap to be cheap and abundant. For over a century, both private and municipally-owned water companies did such an effective job of invisibly and reliably delivering drinking water to the tap at a reasonable cost that we actually diminished the value of tap water and the underground water systems that deliver it.

While water is a natural resource, the simple fact is untreated water from rain, lakes, streams, rivers and springs, and subterranean aquifers does not meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) water quality standards for health. Water is essential to life, and water utilities have the responsibility to make untreated water drinkable and usable. Treating water is just one part of keeping Americans safe and healthy. The other part is making sure the pipes, pumps, valves, tanks, fire hydrants, and treatment facilities function reliably and efficiently.

Safe drinking water that meets or exceeds the EPA water quality standards in the Safe Drinking Water Act requires a vast, well-maintained infrastructure to treat and deliver water. Many of America's complex network of water systems have outlived their useful life, and it has fallen to this generation to restore, repair and expand the water infrastructure. According to Public Works Financing's 18th Annual Water Partnership Survey (2014), this country's private water utilities produce and deliver 1.7 trillion gallons of water every year through 100,000 miles of pipes. We are acutely aware of the water challenges facing this nation and the many ways to solve them.

Flint, Michigan, has drawn attention to the uncomfortable reality that water systems are complicated, and many have only received a fraction of the investment needed for proper treatment, maintenance and replacement. Much of America's water infrastructure is outdated, overused and underserviced. It will be costly to fix today's challenges and prepare for the future. The EPA's 2013 Needs Assessment Survey estimates a price tag of $384 billion to repair and replace our nation's drinking water infrastructure by 2030. But what about needs and investments for the next generation?

Every year, an estimated 240,000 water main breaks in the United States result in a loss of 7 billion gallons of water. Many of our water pipes are more than 100 years old - some dating back to the Civil War era - and in serious need of replacement. In 2013, The American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) Report Card for America's Infrastructure gave our nation's water systems a "D" grade. The costs and complexities related to the nation's water infrastructure are challenging, but there are many proven approaches and solutions that can be deployed today and over the next decade to arrest these immediate water challenges.

Importantly, no one entity, business model, technology, financing mechanism or process will work. Overcoming these challenges will require unprecedented cooperation and partnerships between the public and private water sectors using a variety of solutions.

First, it is paramount we continue to aggressively educate communities, customers and public officials about the realities of crumbling water infrastructure. The Value of Water Coalition released a national poll (February 2016) indicating that once respondents received additional information about water issues, 60 percent of Americans are in favor of paying more to invest in water infrastructure. Understanding of the basic facts about water and water systems can lead to action among customers and communities.

Next, the nation's municipalities need to make greater use of many kinds of public-private partnerships (P3s). P3s work. In 2015, P3s were renewed at a rate of 90 percent according to Public Works Financing's 20th Annual Water Outsourcing Report released March 2016. It is clear municipalities are embracing the value of the private water sector in helping solve their water challenges. In July 2014, President Obama established the Build America Investment Initiative to bring the best of the public and private sectors together to identify innovative financing and management of the infrastructure necessary for economic growth, public health and protection of the environment in communities across the country.

This nation has many smaller and medium-sized water systems that are distressed and need relief to ensure their communities' health and safety are not threatened. Private water companies can help these systems by acquiring and operating them to ensure there is reliable service delivering clean drinking water. Aqua America, Pennsylvania American Water and York Water Company are among some of the private water companies that have recently acquired publicly-owned systems and worked to restore dependable water service to the communities they serve.

Private water companies have proven expertise in science and engineering, and have played an important role in the establishment of federal and state water quality standards, working closely with the USEPA and other organizations to ensure that treated water and its byproducts are safe for their customers and surrounding communities.

Every year private water companies explore innovative solutions to help overcome the nation's water challenges and strengthen communities. For example, CH2M was chosen by Pima County, Arizona, officials to build and operate the Agua Nueva Water Reclamation Facility that came in $77 million below the county's design-build budget, eight months early and one year ahead of the compliance schedule, saving $2 million in annual operating costs. Aqua Pennsylvania boasts a 6.5-acre solar farm that generates 1.5 megawatts of energy at its water treatment facility in Pickering, Pennsylvania.

Finally, there is an immediate need to embrace the value of collaboration and cooperation between government-owned water systems and privately-owned and regulated water systems. The outdated public-versus-private paradigms need to end. State and federal governments can't solve all the water challenges, and private, regulated water companies and professionals can be part of the solution. The emotional and ideological rationales just don't hold water, and ignore the value of cooperation.

The nation's water quality is better than it has ever been, but that won't continue without immediate, sustained investment in water infrastructure. The health and safety of America is at stake, and so is the quality of life for the next generation.