Aging Infrastructures Could Push Water Costs Higher

When I see the words “water problems” and “California” in the same headline, the first thing that comes to mind is drought. But what made the headlines recently is the water main break in Los Angeles, which cost the city millions of gallons of water. 

When I hear “water problems” and “Lake Erie” in the same newscast, my first thought is pollution. And it was in fact algae blooms that got the city of Toledo, Ohio, onto the nightly news during a two-day water emergency. But once the immediate crisis had passed, there was local buzz about the dilapidated condition of the city’s Collins Park water treatment plant.

Those two cities are not alone in having aging water treatment and distribution systems. In its 2013 report card on U.S. infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a D, saying that, especially in older cities, much of it is old and in need of replacement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the cost to address water infrastructure problems nationally to be $335 billion over 20 years; the American Water Works Association puts the tab at $1.7 trillion by 2050.

If those numbers don’t make you think the price of water, and incentives or mandates to conserve it, are due to rise, remember that other factors are also at play, like droughts and new regulations. 

Those costs won’t come due all at once. Rather, individual communities will feel differing impacts over time. Here in Milwaukee, for example, a record number of breaks led to a request for a rate increase of nearly 10 percent.

As a nation, we’ve put off paying our water bill for a long time. We can’t put it off forever. In many parts of the country, rising water costs will be a fact of life. As that happens, facility managers will increasingly be able to point to economics, as well as environmental stewardship, to justify more extensive water conservation efforts.