Americans Value Water More Than Energy, and Want Government to Fix Leaking Pipes

Ninety-five percent of Americans say water delivery is more important than access to energy sources and internet and cell phone service, according to a survey released last week by ITT, a $10.9-billion company with a $3.5-billion water engineering and infrastructure business.

ITT also asked survey participants* if they think federal, state, and local governments should invest more in repairing aging pipes and treatment facilities. The answer any water engineering company wants to hear: Yes, by 85 percent.

What we don’t see when we turn on the tap are the miles of pipe that flush water into and out of our homes. Some of those pipes are more than 100 years old. Our nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is aging at the cost of wasted water and the risk of contamination, according to advocates for increased public funding for repairs.

A Legacy of Leaks

Milwaukee, Wisconsin's $121-million deep tunnel project to protect the Great Lakes from sewage and stormwater overflows. Photograph by Tasha Eichenseher.

A 2007U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report cited 240,000 water main breaks and 75,000 sewer overflows annually.

And the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates our national water infrastructure system D- and attributes billions of gallons of untreated wastewater discharge into America’s surface waters to broken and outdated infrastructure. Not to mention the huge losses from leaking pipes. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 1.7 trillion gallons of water are lost from water distribution systems every year at a cost of $2.6 billion.

(Learn how to save at home with National Geographic’s water footprint calculator and tips for saving water.)

Costly Repairs

The cost of fixing the entire problem–drinking water distribution, inadequate sewer systems, and more: $255 billion over the next five years, estimates the ASCE. That is nearly $109 billion short of what is available at the federal, state, and local level, says ASCE. At current funding levels, EPA estimates that there will be a $500-billion funding shortage by 2020.

Read more about the problem in the New York Times article “Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly.”

Americans are willing to take on some of the economic burden themselves, paying on average $6.20, or 11 percent, more a month for water service, according to the ITT survey results.

ITT estimates that if 63 percent of Americans paid $6.20 more each month, the nation could collect at least $5 billion a year to fix water infrastructure and secure long-term access to clean water.

A lack of federal dollars for repairing and upgrading local water and wastewater facilities has been a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill for decades.

Since the 1980s, when a program to fund new water construction projects ended, cities and towns have lobbied for more federal assistance, saying they haven’t received enough financial and technical support to upgrade local water systems and keep up with new water quality standards and regulations.

(See pictures of larger-than-life water delivery, diversion, and damming projects.)

The federal government has given low-interest loans worth $74 billion for such projects since 1987, according to EPA. The agency’s federal funding mechanism is a low-interest loan program called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

A policy upgrade, proposed by utility managers, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the National Governors Association, and a host of congressmen and senators–would establish a trust fund for drinking and wastewater infrastructure projects, paid for through taxes on everything from bottled beverages to pharmaceutical products, depending on whose plan you look at.

We’ll see what next year has in store…

*ITT reached out to 1,605 people representative of 2006 voting population demographics over the phone, asking 82 questions.


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

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Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.