Unfortunately, You Can’t Get Your Water over WiFi


Airmen shut off a hydrant after a water main burst on an Air Force base. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kenny Holston


In the last two years, we have spent a huge sum of money on infrastructure — one kind of infrastructure.

Infrastructure — that’s the stuff we know is important but unsexy. The asparagus of investment.

But these infrastructure numbers are anything but unsexy:

In two years, we’ve spent $57.4 billion on this one style of invisible system.

That’s $500 for every household in the U.S. — $21 a month, every month, for two years.

Did you notice?

Did you whine?

Did the $21 keep you from paying the cable TV bill, or slow down your daily Starbucks investment — or force you to give up your Lipitor?

Not hardly.

In 2010 and 2011, Verizon and AT&T — just those two companies — spent $57.4 billion installing and upgrading the high-speed cell phone networks (3G and 4G) we all use every day.*

If anything, our complaint is that they aren’t moving fast enough, they aren’t spending enough, their pipes aren’t big enough — how come this iPhone is so slow?

Two companies. Two years. Two data networks. $60 billion.

That’s why your smart phone bill is $80 a month per person.

What’s your water bill? On average, it’s $34 a month  — for the family. That’s $10 a month per person — 30 cents a day for all those baths and pots of pasta, for all those cups of coffee and toilet flushes.

Last week, there was a big moment in the world of water.

The word “trillion” started being used in connection with the word “water.”

A big study was released describing the attention our water infrastructure needs in the next 25 years — and the headline number was that we need to spend $1 trillion on the pipes that bring us drinking water.

Now, $1 trillion is serious money. That’s more than the total Defense Department budget — although to be fair, the Pentagon spends $1 trillion in 18 months, and the water pipes need $1 trillion over 300 months.

Still: $1 trillion.

We need to spend that on water pipes, huh?

But here’s the question: What are the water pipes worth?

Do we value our water service as much as, for instance, our electricity? our cable TV? our cell phone service?

One of my favorite, little-known tidbits from the world of water is this. In Washington, DC, there is a major drinking water main that supplies K Street, and then runs on up to Capitol Hill.

That water main — which supplies water to the flossy, high-powered lobbying firms — was installed between 1858 and 1860. The lobbyists are drinking water from a pipe that was laid before Lincoln was inaugurated.

What if they were sweet-talking Senators over a phone system that was installed before Lincoln was inaugurated? Oh, wait. The telephone wasn’t invented until 1876.

When will it be a good idea to replace that 150-year-old water main, in the nation’s capital? When will we have the money to do that?

And, perhaps more to the point, if you could cut a slice of that pipe, set it on the kitchen counter, and look at it, would you be happy drinking water from it?

Well, that’s the whole point of last week’s report about water pipes — although the report itself is a little drier. It is the work of a quiet but invaluable organization called the American Water Works Association — the group that represents all of America’s water utilities.

With a classic bit of water-geek humor, the report is called, “Buried No Longer.” Bring those water pipes into view! We can’t hide the work they need!

And “Buried No Longer” — which clearly represents an incredible investment of effort and money — is a painstaking accounting of our water mains. What kinds of pipes does each region have? When were they installed? It’s all there — including 21 pages of charts at the end. Water folks love a good chart.

It is filled with amazing facts.

How many miles of drinking water mains have we got? In the U.S., 1 million miles. That’s 20 times the length of all our interstate highways.

How much is all that pipe worth, in the ground? $2.1 trillion. Each American can lay claim to $6,774 worth of water pipe.

What does it cost to lay new water main? $2 million per mile.

Over and over again, the report returns to the fact that we need to spend $1 trillion. The report divides the money up by region, by family. It warns that in some places, monthly water bills could triple. It even answers the question: What will happen if we don’t spend the $1 trillion. (No surprise: All plumbing problems get more expensive if you ignore them, even $1 trillion plumbing problems.)

But the math is not that hard.

First, the $1 trillion is a little misleading — it includes replacing water mains that are wearing out (pipes, the report says, “last a long time, but they are not immortal”) and adding new water mains to serve growing communities.

Extending water networks can, and often is, paid for by the people getting that new water service — homes and businesses pay connection fees to cover those.

The mains that need to be replaced come to half that $1 trillion — $525 billion. Over 25 years, that’s $21 billion a year. With 114 million households in the U.S. today, that’s about $15 for each family, each month.

Which would mean that the average water bill would go from $34 to $49 a month — still less than the cost of a single smart phone plan.

Seems like a very reasonable investment. After all, you can’t get your water over WiFi.


* How big is that $57.4 billion invested by AT&T and Verizon in 2010 and 2011? Together, those two companies alone spent twice the entire NASA budget.


Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. He is the author of The Big Thirst.

Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. His recently released book about water, "The Big Thirst," has been widely praised by sources as varied as The Washington Post and the science journal Nature for its captivating storytelling and its incisive explanation of water, water issues, and our rapidly changing relationship to water. Fishman continues to report, write and speak about water issues. Contact him at: cnfish@mindspring.com
  • Jeanne Jensen

    As a water professional – thank you for this. Our industry is literally buried and undervalued. Hopefully we can start making investments while it’s a choice, and not an emergency.

  • Eunice Leonard

    This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. When President Obama first talked about “putting America back to work” , this was the kind of investment I was hoping for: updating our infrastructure, which would have created jobs to get it done. The monetary investment would have been worth it, and our economy would be better than it is now.

  • […] are anything but unsexy: In two years, we’ve spent $57.4 billion on this one…   Original post on nationalgeographic.com →   Comments on digg.com →   Related PostsNanotrees harvest the sun’s […]

  • Jeff Sterba

    I applaud Mr. Fishman’s article, “Unfortunately, you can’t get your water over WiFi.” We face a critical decision point concerning the nation’s water supply, and not in some distant future but within the next 20 years. U.S. water services are so dependable that Americans take safe drinking water for granted. With many water assets underground, the need to invest in water and wastewater systems is overshadowed by visibly crumbling roads and bridges. But without water, we have nothing. It is necessary to life and the essential underpinning of our society. Water enables economic growth; its absence limits it.

    Water’s historic underpricing hinges on a perception that it is “free” – a fundamental need supplied by the earth. The infrastructure required to treat and deliver water, however, is far from free. Because the majority of funding comes from revenues generated by pricing, a major shift is needed in the way water is priced, then, in order to meet our infrastructure needs. Paying the true cost of a reliable water supply will not only help utilities continue to provide it, but will also encourage more conservative use, ensuring its sustainability for future generations.

    Jeff Sterba
    President and CEO
    American Water

  • Scott Edwards

    Nice job, Charles. These types of comparos will help more people become aware of the precious nature of water and the important role of our infrastructure. You provide a great service by making the situation more understandable. Being in the water industry now for more than a decade, even I see things that are surprising. Various groups have estimated that we lose 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water every day in the U.S. due to leaky pipes; the quick math indicates that’s enough to supply 60 million people with their daily needs! Sustainable approaches can solve this issue over time, creating jobs and protecting water supplies. Who can argue with that!

  • […] Unfortunately, You Can’t Get Your Water over WiFi […]

  • Chris Workman

    Terrific article! As a municipal government with a lot of concerns about our decaying local water system, I’m forwarding this article to our City Council to help “unearth” this issue and make it a point of emphasis in the upcoming budget. Thank you.

  • […] It’s looking like water mains in the U.S. need a major overhaul. […]

  • Bill

    Well put for those who are above our buried pipe infrastructure – our out of sight out of mind lack of funds for proper maintenance you mean water isn’t free mentality is going to cost more in the end. Now let’s just hope those who are in the business purchase materials that don’t corrode – prevent the use of ductile iron metal pipes and build our “new” pipe infrastructure using technologically advanced non corrosive materials. Your cell phone analogy couldn’t be better here; we pay more for advancements in technology however civil engineers and municipal leaders replace failed water and sewer pipes with the same pipe material that just failed. No family will ever be happy paying more for the same. Simply doing things the same old way and expecting different results will only insure that later generations will be faced with these same issues but at a much larger cost. All of these studies/reports have presented a very compelling reason why we should and will pay more for our water. However, they fall short of letting everyone know that billions will be spent on the exact same pipe materials. Now is the time to rethink material selection and use materials that require less maintenance, won’t leak, and won’t corrode.

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