Water, water...how many drops do YOU waste?

New report raises concerns over long-term investments in U.S. water infrastructure.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Which would you rather go without for 24 hours: Water or electricity? Frankly, as addicted as I am to my computer, my answer is the electricity.

I asked myself that question last Saturday, when I heard that close to 2 million people -- yep, ponder that number, 2 million -- were without clean drinking water over the weekend in the Boston area because of a water main break (in a relatively new pipe, to boot). In fact, as I write this, I believe that many of them are STILL without clean drinking water.

This seemed the perfect time to break out an information release I've been hoarding for a couple of weeks from Ernst & Young, which is a study of the water infrastructure in the United States. The conclusion of this report, which was a sentiment echoed in a separate conversation I had last week about a water project being handled by mega-tech company ITT, is that U.S. water systems are way underfunded, especially when you consider the way we Americans think about water. Here's a pretty staggering statistic from the report: The United States using nearly 656,000 gallons per capita annually, compared with 186,000 gallons per capita in a place like China.

Here's a little excerpt from the report, which is called Infrastructure 2010: An Investment Imperative, and produced by Ernst & Young and the Urban Land Institute:

"Most water districts do not charge ratepayers full outlays for constructing and maintaining systems.... As a result, businesses and households tend to use water inefficiently and don't conserve, even though per-capita water demand could outstrip future availability in some parts of the country."

Here is a summary of the challenges faced by cities, communities, counties, states and the country as a whole, according to the report:

  1. The affect of population growth on aging pipes and, for that matter, on the water supply in a given region.
  2. The failure of U.S. residents to conserve water: Our use of water has doubled -- doubled! -- since 1950. Leaks are a big problem: we waste 1.25 trillion gallons annually.
  3. The good news - Of the 14 metro areas studied in the report, 11 have conservation programs in place although they face problems over regional policy and plain old aging infrastructure. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Philadelphia and Atlanta are the three areas in which little is being done, according to the report.

Among the suggestions that the report makes to ameliorate these issues include:

  • Using federal funds to create regional management systems
  • Get on the problem of upgrading existing pipes and technology, stat
  • Invest in desalinization technology, which will have the affect of extending our fresh water supply
  • Get smarter about reuse, recycling, and using rain water
  • Encourage conservation

It's worth repeating that smart grid technology doesn't just apply to electricity, it can help other sorts of utilities. Water should be at least an equal priority.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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