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Declining U.S. Water and Sewer Systems

There is growing discontent across America about the cost associated with upgrading sewer and water systems. As reported in this Blog previously, deferred maintenance is beginning to reap negative rewards that are overwhelming already stressed cities and counties. Especially during this past winter, when freezing temperatures in the Northeast caused a rash of water main ruptures, the problem is now beginning to raise the ire of citizens. Elected and appointed officials are also reeling from the effects of failing systems inherited from other administrations that failed to invest in maintenance and replacement. Now, with costs rising and revenue falling, there are insufficient tax dollars to address serious issues.

According to EPA data, a major water main ruptures somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes and this rate seems to be rising as more old systems fail. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority data indicates that in the Washington D.C. area alone water pipes average 76 years old and the system averages a pipe break every day. All it takes is a quick freeze or a week of heavy rains and the city’s system can be overwhelmed. When this occurs, untreated sewage can flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, causing a variety of health and environmental challenges.

Each year there are many state and federal studies indicating that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly. ‘May be’ is too soft. The fact is, there are many systems across the nation in dire need of repair, upgrading or total replacement. Over time, the cost will approach a half trillion dollars, just to get systems up to standard so failures can be avoided.

The reality is that Americans pay very little for sewer and water services and resist the slightest tax or fee increase. As with other aspects of American life, when asked if they would rather have safe, secure and ample water or low taxes, citizens answer, “Yes!”

Especially in Eastern cities many water systems were built in the late 1800s and thousands of systems are 80 to 100 years old. Problems are buried in the ground, out of sight of elected officials and typically ignored by citizens until a major break occurs. Each rupture contaminates water supplies, damages streets, and generates a variety of unfunded expenses that would have been avoided through regular maintenance and system upgrades.

Last year, federal lawmakers allocated more than $10 billion for water infrastructure programs, one of the most significant financial commitments in recent history. Unfortunately, a 2009 E.P.A. study estimated that $335 billion would be needed just to maintain only the nation’s tap water systems in coming decades (sewer systems will take at least that much). In New York, officials estimate that $36 billion is needed in the next 20 years just to upgrade municipal wastewater systems. Clearly, the total amount of funding nationally is not nearly enough to cover the cost of needed repairs and to upgrade systems to accommodate demand.

Charles Duhigg of the New York Times has reported that George Hawkins, director of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority ‘has suggested raising water rates for the average resident by almost 17 percent, to about $60 a month per household. Over the coming six years, that rate would rise above $100. To bring those lapses into the light, Mr. Hawkins has become a cheerleader for rate increases. He has begun a media assault highlighting the city’s water woes. He has created a blog and a Facebook page that explain why pipes break. He regularly appears on newscasts and radio shows, and has filled a personal Web site with video clips of his appearances. ‘

 “This is the fight of our lifetimes,” he added. “Water is tied into everything we should care about. Someday, people are going to talk about our sewers with a real sense of pride.” Hawkins also notes that most people think nothing of spending $100 per month for cable TV or cell phones but don’t want to pay for community water systems that are immeasurably more critical.

Even with new fee increases it would take Washington D.C. 100 years to replace all of its old pipes – then the cycle repeats itself. Hawkins has tried to explain to citizens that with the previous budget it would take three centuries to replace the system. He has not found great support, regardless of data indicating the wisdom of a sound replacement and funding strategy. New York Times writer Duhigg has noted that Philadelphia is ready to start collecting $1.6 billion for new approaches that will prevent rain water from overwhelming the sewer system. Communities around Cleveland threatened to sue when the regional utility proposed charging homeowners for water pollution running off their property. And, in central Florida, a $1.8 billion proposal to build a network of drinking water pipes has drawn organized protests.

The real challenge pertains to how to triage community needs while convincing citizens that some aspects of each community are essential and cannot be neglected. To do so costs more money in the long run, adding to deep and growing deficits. Having provided the keynotes for the national EPA conference on water system sustainability and the National Association of Water Companies annual conference, plus several similar programs, I can attest to the growing frustration. Water is the lifeblood of every community and cannot be neglected. But how will each community organize its funding priorities when so many services are needed?  There is no easy fix and both leadership and wise strategic planning is needed NOW.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

The Good Times

Last year I wrote a Blog entitled, We Don’t Know Hard Times (March 2009) that addressed the public lament connected to economic frustrations. Barely a few months into recovery, there was fear of a serious depression approximating the 1930s and many signs pointed to hard times ahead.

My premise then and now is that things aren’t so bad. In that Blog I referenced Timothy Egan’s delightful book about the American dust bowl years (The Worst Hard Time, Mariner Books 2006). From a comparative perspective, there is no reasonable comparison of today’s situation to the dust bowl years. Los Angeles Times writer Michael Shermer has recently noted that these are the good old days. He reported that the average ‘urbanite’ in America earns approximately $40,000 annually and over 25 percent of American families earn over $75,000. Homes have doubled in size since the 1950s, the air and water are cleaner, and the average American has four times as much leisure time as in the 1880s. (A cynic might assume, however, that this number is inflated due to all those leisurely souls who are out of work.) But in almost every category, people living in the U.S. (citizens and visitors) enjoy a pretty good life, even if poor. Have you seen the many recent programs on the plight of Haitians? Even before the earthquake, life for most of the people in Haiti was difficult. The same is generally true for two thirds of the people on this stressed planet.

As reported several times in this Blog, times are different more than they are difficult. America and its communities are in transition. Over the next decade there will be conflicting inflationary and deflationary trends that will both define and reflect a new ‘normal.’ Resources are being consumed far too fast for any thoughtful person to argue that commodity prices will not increase. While there were many new oil field discoveries in 2009, many of those reserves are hard to reach and exhibit conditions that make extraction difficult and expensive. And, many are in countries that are not friends of the United States; they will not sell us cheap oil. Minerals, water, oil, and manufactured products will grow more costly. Inflation will occur; it is being kept in check by careful monitoring and manipulation of interest rates and other market constrictions. Is this bad? No. In fact, it is good because it buys this country time to decide on a course of action.

Public servants in Greece have violently demonstrated to protest a proposal that their pay be reduced to help the government recover its economic footing. Would the same happen in the U.S.? If every public employee took a 3 percent pay reduction for three years, would it help the recovery? What if every new car purchased by an American was made in America? Would that help? What if there were restrictions on how much Wall Street can skim off deposits and earnings from funds that were earned and deposited by working people? What would the increase in returns do for the average investor?

Economists quietly report that the cost of living in this country is generally exacerbated by citizens’ insistence that they have larger homes, better food, two cars, selected toys, a lot of recreation, and government programs for every conceivable service. If we were more self sufficient and could eliminate the more arcane services, would that help?

The point here is that we are not in new territory. But for most of us, we are merely in an unfamiliar place. For those of us who were born after 1945, we have never seen really tough times. We need to learn about ourselves and the Country needs to evolve to a model that fits a new global, hypercompetitive age. These are not necessarily hard times…but they are indeed challenging.

Do we have leaders who understand this new world and its emerging challenges? Will they prepare us for the challenges ahead? And, more critically, will we prepare ourselves for those same challenges? We will not return to ‘normal.’ We must define an entirely new concept of normal and do so before we actually experience hard times.

John Luthy is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, he is known for his real world, straight talking style and understanding of public agencies.  John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).