The End of Cheap Water?


Today’s guest blog is from Sharlene Leurig, the Senior Manager of the Ceres Water Program, where she works with drinking water, stormwater and wastewater service providers to develop physical infrastructure and rate structures that enable development of sustainable water systems.


We need smart investments when rebuilding our crumbling water infrastructure | © Jef Nickerson

We need smart investments when rebuilding our crumbling water infrastructure | © Jef Nickerson

The costs of rebuilding our nation’s water infrastructure are jaw dropping: estimates range from $300 billion to $1 trillion needed over the next 30 years. Add in the cost to develop new water supplies, treatment plants and transmission systems to accommodate growth—$20 billion for new reservoirs and pipelines in North Texas, $7 billion for a pipeline in Las Vegas—and the numbers really start to make the mind reel.

Investing in our nation’s infrastructure and water security is a necessity. But what we invest in is a choice we should not take lightly—not when the costs are so high. And not when water rates are already straining the ability to pay of America’s most vulnerable. While it’s become a platitude that Americans pay too little for water to care how much they use, the reality is that the costs of water services are outpacing the cost gains of every other basic service—faster than electricity, faster than solid waste, faster even than cable television. And while many of us can afford it, in some communities, the cost of clean drinking water strains the bounds of affordability: a study by the University of North Carolina found that low-income households are paying as much as 8% of annual income for water services.

Everyone in America should have access to clean, affordable drinking water and sanitation services. But in an era of fiscal constraint, this means we need to be smarter about the way we provide these services and realistic about the true cost of sticking with the legacy systems we have inherited.

More efficient use of water will have to part of the solution. In the United States, around a third of the clean drinking water we treat each day is used to water lawns. This proportion is as high as 70% in some areas. Energy prices are rising, and with it, the cost of treating and moving that water. This is unsustainable, environmentally and financially.

The good news is, we can choose to use water more efficiently, and to protect the affordability of clean drinking water for generations to come. But advocates have to make this solution a reality by educating themselves about the financial constraints water systems face in maintaining the infrastructure and the debt acquired by their predecessors, and by supporting their political leaders to lay the pathway toward equitable and sustainable water services.

Drinking Water Infrastructure: Who pays and how (and for what?)” is essential reading for anyone looking to shape a sustainable water future in their community. It provides a shared foundation of knowledge for advocates of all stripes to cooperate in stewarding their communities’ most critical infrastructure, so that Americans always enjoy the best water money can buy, without breaking the bank.