It’s a big number. It is more than 25% of the current bloated U.S. Government budget. It’s $3,125 for every U.S. citizen. It’s what the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost to fix the U.S.’ water infrastructure if we do not act now according to its report Failure to Act. Unfortunately, the longer we wait, the worse it will be because the additive nature of such costs, just like if you do not fix the deck this year, it costs more and more as the deck falls apart. Also, this figure is based on 2010 dollars, not 20xx dollar’s. The number does not even include the damage to the GDP. The AWWA (American Water Works Association), the water professional association, went further in their dissection of the issue with their report Buried No Longer.
Why do we find ourselves in this situation? There can be some blame to decade old pipes, tanks and filters just wearing out. There can be some blame to our recent recession resulting in less capital to build things. Then, there’s blame for putting off the problem for a few months or years until there is money to spend. We’ve all done this, haven’t we? However, these are municipal water systems. A few months or a year will not cause this issue. Twenty years of neglect will. Mostly, it’s the money. And politics.
Politicians control how they will be reelected with our dollars and because of this, they control how money gets spent. They award bids to companies and individuals that support them. They allocate reserves to projects that get their picture in the paper. They grant funding to issues that get them reelected. Here is the bad news, initiatives to improve water pipes, which are hidden from view until they break, receive far fewer votes than parking garages. In short, water infrastructure loses to more parking spots for the F-150. Most politicians just want your water system to get a passing grade so they can build another parking garage, but when did a D- become a passing grade? We let them get away with it because we have two basic issues. First is the awareness of the effort to deliver water. Because we are an exception-based society, we tend to not notice things until they are missing. We do not really pay attention to gas stations, until we need gas. And water is something we expect in quantity and quality, until we do not have it. We generally pay zero attention to something so present in our homes. We use thousands of gallons per month and don’t think twice about all it took to get there.
The second issue is our assignment of value. The great economist Adam Smith described this as the Diamond-Water Paradox. The paradox is based on the fact that we value diamonds, which have no intrinsic value higher than water, which we cannot live more than a few days without. The average family uses 325 gallons of water a day or about 10,000 gallons per month. In the U.S., we do not ration the water; we do not have to walk to get water; and we generally don’t even think about the water. The average cost of water is about $50.00 per month, but a diamond retails, depending on quality and size, at over $2,000 per carat. When the water shortage hits, I am betting the prices will shift closer together.
The third reason we have failing infrastructure is that people in the U.S. have been able to turn on a tap and get high quality water for so long that we have come to think it’s free. The reality is that water is free, but its purity and pressure cost money.
Here is the real message to you: pressure politicians to support the cost of fixing your water system. Do not let the city counsel trade your security and water for votes. Your water may cost more, but you will have water. I suspect that voters who insist on their water systems being sound and predictable will be able to trade their water to the people with diamonds on a straight-up basis eventually. As for me? I’d take water over diamonds any day.