This month, in honor of AWWA’s Drinking Water Week, we asked each of our staff members their thoughts on drinking water. Here is what they said:
Dawn: I am a “water baby” born in February; my sign is “Aquarius” and I have always been drawn to water. When I was young, after a rain storm, if a drain was clogged you could find me with a stick trying to get the water flowing again. Water is so many things in my life: sport, health, career, family fun — the list goes on and on. When I think specifically about drinking water I think about how overlooked and taken for granted it is in the U.S. I think of places that don’t have enough drinking water or adequate infrastructure. I think of the impact those deficiencies have on everything from the health to the economy of those communities. I wonder how many Americans have ever pumped water from a well or carried water from a spring. It hasn’t been that long since those were the only ways to get water into our homes. How far we’ve come and how far we have to go to protect the mighty resource that is drinking water. My hope is that the work we are doing is putting us farther down the path of protection.
Matt: Being an advocate for something means that you publicly support and work towards a specific cause. As we celebrate Drinking Water Week in 2017, one of the most important roles we can play in our communities is by being an advocate for safe and affordable drinking water. This role is particularly important in our small communities where a single person is often the driving force to ensure that their community has access to safe drinking water. In our large cities, water utilities, water boards, elected officials, corporations and citizens are all stakeholders in ensuring a safe and affordable supply of drinking water, but in our small communities it is that single person that can make an impact in sustaining the life force that is safe drinking water. If that person is no longer able to play that role, then our small communities are in danger of losing that life force and dying. Whether you live in a large city or a small town, I encourage you to think about advocating for safe drinking water. You have a chance to make a difference in your community, not only in 2017 but beyond.
Heather: Interestingly the “biggest challenge in drinking water” and the “importance of water” go hand in hand. The biggest challenge — the fact that customers don’t want to pay a sustainable rate for water and elected leaders don’t want to charge a sustainable rate — is related to the fact that, in general, people greatly undervalue water. Water comes into a home, safe to drink, under pressure, any time day or night through just a turn of the tap at far less than a penny per gallon. There is no more important product to support life and health, but there is also no less expensive product. The water industry has been a victim of its own success in this regard. We have been able to provide such excellent service at such a low price that people have come to expect that high service/low price water forever. What customers may not realize is that much of the early infrastructure was installed with grant funds and the infrastructure is now reaching the end of its useful life. Now that much of that infrastructure needs to be replaced (and the costs of replacement can be extraordinarily high), the rates need to go up in order to sustain the water utilities. If the rates stay the same, we risk infrastructure failures which can result in short or long-term water outages, the potential for public health related concerns, or the potential to lose businesses due to an inability to provide reliable water service. Realizing that water is the foundation of our communities may lead customers and elected leaders to view paying rates not in a negative way, but rather as a positive, long-term investment in the community.
Francine: Growing up in Romania, I have many memories of our water service being interrupted – both with and without notice. The water-related memory that sticks with me the most is from the mid 1990s when hot-water services were only available twice a week for two hours at a time. I remember my sister and I having to interrupt our hide-and-seek games to rush home and take a shower before the service was interrupted again. Even when we were on time, the hot water would sometimes cut off mid-shower—now, twenty years later, I can still picture my mom carrying a steaming pot of hot water through the apartment to make sure I could rinse the shampoo out of my hair. Some years later, soon after moving to a small town on the East Coast, I remember our landlord and neighbors happily reporting that there was no need for us to limit the duration of our showers since the water was free in that part of town. Although I did not realize the implications of those sorts of financial decisions until I began working for the Environmental Finance Centers, I continue to use water in a thoughtful manner and often have conversations with my friends and family about the importance of preserving this limited resource.
Mark: As part of a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)1, it was determined that climate change will impact the availability of water in the contiguous United States in upwards of 1,100 counties by mid-century. Of the 1,100 counties predicted to be affected, 400 could face extreme water shortages resulting in the water users’ demand exceeding available supply. Planning now for the effects of our nation’s impending water supply shortage due to climate change will determine the success or failure of future agricultural yields, the accessibility for domestic use, and the availability of power due to a decreased supply to power plant cooling systems. It is apparent that the consequences of moving forward under the current approach to climate change is untenable for our future. We must make it the mission of this generation to find an environmentally conscientious way of managing our depleting resources, while simultaneously shifting to clean alternative options for meeting the exponentially growing demand for power in the United States and developing countries.
Teresa: A few days ago I listened to a radio talk show when the hosts began a conversation about the poor access to water quality around the world. One of them then told the story of a friend who had volunteered with an NGO to drill a well in an African country. How I wish things were that simple! Access to a reliable source of clean drinking water would be so much simpler if all we needed to do was to drill a well! Instead, what if that well is not adequately protected and becomes contaminated? What if the community does not know how to operate and maintain the well? How will the water from the well get disinfected? How will the water be safely transported from the well to people’s homes?
Many of us do not realize how many puzzle pieces must come together so that we can have clean water flowing out of our taps in our homes. People who live in big American cities are fortunate enough to have water treatment plants that use chlorine, filters, ozone, UV and whatever combination of treatment methods is necessary to remove contaminants from their water supply. In other parts of the country (and the world), there are communities with fewer resources who must decide which treatment methods to forgo and what kind of risks they are willing to take with their water supply. Effectively treating and distributing clean drinking water is an expensive process. As a result, there are many communities in the United States whose water systems have been completely abandoned. Those water systems are known as ‘orphan systems’ because no one is available to operate or maintain or ensure that the water is potable. As budgets get slashed and economic opportunities migrate from rural to urban settings, elected officials will face the challenge of ensuring the number of ‘orphan systems’ does not continue to increase.
What does drinking water mean to me? Drinking water is like a mirror: it reflects our economy, education, community health and sociopolitical priorities.
Rose: Water is life: no living thing would exist without it. Ironically, although 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, most of it is saline and safe drinking water is quite difficult to find. In some parts of the world people fight for water—for themselves, for their livestock, and for their plants. However, in other parts of the world drinking water is taken for granted until we are faced with its scarcity. Only then are we sadly reminded of its importance in our lives. If lucky enough to have both abundant and safe drinking water, this resource should be treasured and protected at all costs. The 2014 US National Intelligence Strategy report and other Global Water Security Reports predict that future global wars will be fueled by water issues. The challenge therefore is, how can we avert this prediction from becoming a reality?
James: I grew up in Seattle, surrounded (and often drenched) by water. It was always there and we took it for granted – you turned the tap and clean water came out. I’ve lived in many parts of the United States and abroad, but it wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico that it really occurred to me how dependent we are on our supply of clean water, how limited that supply can be, and how odd our water consumption habits are in the US. Here I began to value the resource and marvel at the ingenuity that goes into making water safe and delivering it to us. For example, we get much of our water supply in Albuquerque from rivers on the other side of the continental divide. That’s an amazing engineering feat, but is it tenable long term? While I marvel at the technical feats used to deliver clean water into our homes, I also marvel at the unwillingness of consumers to pay for that service. Clean water comes from our taps at pennies a gallon, but rate increases to maintain and improve our drinking water infrastructure are routinely objected to by both customers and water boards. The disparity in water rates across the country is also amazing. It strikes me as supremely ironic that customers in Seattle, a place with seeming (though not actual) unlimited supplies of fresh water pay four times what we do in Albuquerque. Seattle residents also use less than half as much water as we do in Albuquerque.
And yet, while consumers reject water utility rate increases, many support a bottled water industry we don’t really need. Water is drained from aquifers in Fiji, desiccated central California, and many other places. It’s bottled and shipped to grocery stores in 20 oz. plastic bottles, and sold for more than $7.00 a gallon. Why? We need to re-think our habits, our long-term priorities, and our strategy before the resource that has always been there, isn’t there anymore.
1 Climate Change, Water, and Risk. (2010, July). Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/WaterRisk.pdf
What are your thoughts on drinking water? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
For as long as I can remember, water has been part of my life. Growing up in the Midwest, I would go to summer camp where I learned to swim, fish, water ski and sail on the lakes of Wisconsin. As I grew up, water continued to play a role in my life including having a sailboat on the Chesapeake, steelhead fishing in Erie, PA and vacationing at the beaches of lower Delaware. It seemed natural that I chose a water utility as the path for my career. Over the years, I have seen my industry become a more prominent public discussion topic. As infrastructure ages and costs to replace the infrastructure our parents, grandparents and great grandparents benefited from continues to rise, this conversation will likely grow. We will all benefit from this continued dialog about the water utility infrastructure challenges.
My professional life has now taken me to a position where I am reaching out to small systems across the United States. These are some of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to providing the service that many of the large, well-funded utilities provide on a daily basis. As a society, we must remember that these communities need the same or more attention as the larger communities. We must continue to have the tough discussions about funding alternatives and consolidation. Whether you live in a large metropolitan area or a rural community; there is no alternative to a clean reliable water supply.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Tom!