A Publication of WTVP

Keeping water flowing today requires investment for tomorrow.

Last year, the worst U.S. drought in more than half a century left its mark on Illinois—and some experts are warning that we won’t be out of the woods anytime soon. While the toll that the lack of soil moisture has taken on crops in the Midwest captured national headlines, another less-noticed drought-related condition was happening here in Illinois and throughout the U.S., signaling a serious situation with long-term public health and economic consequences: water main breaks.

During normal weather patterns, a significant water line ruptures every two minutes somewhere in the U.S. Age (some pipes are more than 100 years old) and corrosion are factors, but shifting, shrinking soil and high pumpage due to increased demand also play a role. As these stressors build up over time, the pipes break—and they will continue to do so without significant investment in our nation’s often-neglected water infrastructure.

There has been a lot of talk in Washington about the need to upgrade our infrastructure, but it’s usually more about roads and bridges than water. There is a general failure to recognize that when water and wastewater pipes beneath the surface rupture, so does the ground above. A major main break can jeopardize not only roads and public transportation, but homes and businesses as well. Studies show that when you run systems to the point of failure, it costs about 10 times more than what it would to fix the problem in a timely fashion. So, when we invest in repairing and replacing our water infrastructure, we also help to ensure the continued stability of the other infrastructure.

In a 2007 report to Congress, the U.S. EPA estimated that the nation’s drinking water utilities needed more than $335 billion in infrastructure investments—$15 billion in Illinois alone—over the next 20 years. What’s more, in a recent study on the economic impact of under-investing in our water and wastewater infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that to remain on our current track will cost American businesses $734 billion in lost sales between now and 2020, while the cumulative loss to our gross domestic product will be $416 billion, directly due to deteriorating water infrastructure. You also can’t ignore the fact that leaking or broken pipes waste more than seven billion gallons of clean, treated drinking water every day.

Water is fundamental, both to our economic vitality and overall quality of life, not to mention our very survival. At about a penny a gallon (far less than the cost of a gallon of milk or bottled water), this precious resource is also an exceptional value, especially considering how often we use it every day. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the challenges facing water systems or the complex process involved in delivering clean water to their taps.

For more than 100 years, Illinois American Water has met the challenges of new water quality requirements, periods of drought and floods, and fire protection in our service communities. Each year, approximately $70 million is invested to make needed improvements to our systems, allowing us to continue providing reliable, high-quality service. Our customers also play an important role, because each time they make a water payment, they help us make these critical improvements.

The time has come for us as a nation—community by community—to commit to adopting strategies to renew our water infrastructure. We must understand what is at stake and work together to create viable solutions that keep the water flowing, and continue to protect public safety and the environment. Water infrastructure may be out of sight, but it must not be out of mind. It’s time we brought this issue to the surface. iBi

Karla Olson Teasley is president of Illinois American Water, the state’s largest investor-owned water utility.