The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 5, 2014

Detroit, Toledo, and other drops in the ocean of America’s future water woes

Yesterday, Toledo turned its collective tap back on after a weekend filled with worries about toxic water supplies. The same day, less than an hour’s drive away, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department extended the moratorium on residential shutoffs that had left over 7,000 households without water up through mid-July. The timing of these incidents is a wakeup call not just for regional water utilities, but for city governments and residents.

Toledo’s water quality problem and Detroit’s water access crisis undermine the fundamental assumption that most contemporary urban Americans hold: that our water is safe, plentiful, and cheap. In actuality, water safety, supply, and cost in US cities have been the subject of years of intense management and regulation.

Yet, despite decades of public and private water infrastructure investments, our access is still not as safe and fair as we assume. According to the most recent American Housing Survey, over 8 percent of households still report that their primary source of water is not safe to drink.

The fundamental reality is that cities need water for basic consumption and sanitation. Keeping it flowing on involves three primary urban policy tools.

Infrastructure

We need the appropriate infrastructure to deliver clean water to cities, and to remove waste and storm water efficiently and safely.

The contamination of Toledo’s water supply did not stem from an industrial spill or manufacturing emission—at least, not directly. The toxin was produced by algae that grow in phosphorus-rich water—a recent condition in western Lake Erie, thanks in large part to leaking septic systems, sewer emissions, and the chemical runoff from fertilized lawns, farms, and cattle feedlots that find their way into storm water drains and into the water source.

Nationally, our current water infrastructure is in a frightening state. In its latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s drinking water and storm water infrastructure a grade of “D.”

Pipes represent the greatest infrastructure need, with many in the United States over a century old, especially in the oldest and most populated cities. Over 240,000 water mains break every year in the United States—that’s 657 water main breaks per day.

Like delaying health treatments, waiting to resolve infrastructure problems only escalates the long-term costs. These expenses will trickle down to consumers who will face higher water bills and fees, as well as increasingly disrupted service, wasteful leakages, and localized floods.

States and local municipalities pay for the majority of water-related costs, and some, like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Austin, are adopting nontraditional water management. “Green” infrastructure, like roof planting and rain gardens, works with natural water flows and provides other environmental and social benefits, and can be cheaper than traditional “gray” infrastructure.

Green infrastructure is one of many long-term investment options for cities to address their aging infrastructure in the midst of severe resource constraints, increasing demand, and more physical pressure from changing environmental and climate conditions.

Financing

Cities and regions that identify future needs and plan accordingly face an obvious constraint—money, and not just for upfront construction costs. Long-term maintenance and operations are critical for repairing and replacing systems flexibly and with an eye towards improved—rather than just sustained—performance and equitable investment and returns across the population.

The costs of infrastructure have gone up since most of our communities’ systems were first installed. But cities can’t duct-tape their way out of these problems, and costs will only continue to rise if we postpone needed improvements. If we maintain the status quo, each US household will be paying $900 more each year by 2020 from increased water costs. These households could save $59 billion  by then just with adequate water investments today.

But with local and regional resources strained and federal funds in limbo, the traditional paths to funding the upfront costs for new and repaired infrastructure are broken. Based on current investment trends, the funding gap for water and wastewater infrastructure will be $84 billion by 2020 and $144 billion by 2040.

In cities with declining populations like Detroit and Toledo, this doesn’t translate to having excess infrastructure—it means having unaffordable and decaying infrastructure. Downsizing isn’t an option—most urban infrastructure operates on a fixed grid, making it difficult to remove components in depopulated areas without impacting the whole system.

Many financing programs and tools do exist to assist communities in financing their water infrastructure, but the funding for daily operations, maintenance, and long-term capital investments for water systems are usually generated through low user fees, feeding the misperception that water infrastructure and supply is inexpensive.

Households that consume water need to pay their share, but they’re not the only users, nor are they always in a position to pay for this most basic of life’s necessities. Establishing affordable "lifeline rates" for low-income households and escalating rate plans for higher consumption are fair strategies that ensure revenue for utilities without jeopardizing life or health.

In order to maintain infrastructure and plan for future maintenance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) argues that the pricing of water services should accurately reflect the true costs of providing high-quality water and wastewater services. Last month, the EPA launched the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, comprised of government agencies, nonprofits, and private organizations, to promote green infrastructure through grants and technical support.

Regulation and monitoring

Going back as far as 1948, the United States has heavily and successfully relied on regulation at the national and state levels to ensure that our waters continue to flow, and flow safely. With the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act and 1987 Water Quality Act, water quality and access have certainly improved.

But with changing environmental conditions and increased growth, combined with reliance on the same original infrastructure, these gains may not persist. We need to continue investing in monitoring and enforcement of city waters beyond basic quality, and look toward effective guidelines and incentives that address water access, pricing, and conservation.

Ultimately, Toledo and Detroit’s water supply problems are symptomatic of a collective trend that also includes California’s ongoing drought and the physical backup of most major cities’ storm water systems. Cities need water, but we also need to learn how to manage it.

So far, the glass looks half full—but it’s emptying fast.

Photo: A sample glass of Lake Erie water is photographed near the City of Toledo water intake crib, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

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Comments

We have to conserve and protect one of our most valuable natural resources - water.

Unfortunately it's going to take many more "water crises" across the country before anything is done to protect our water supplies whether they be metropolitan-based or rural. However, the EPA's Green Infrastructure Collaborative is a good step in building a foundation to address these needs as they become more critical in the future.

You rightly note that removing stormwater and wastewater efficiently from cities is as important as providing clean drinking water. Unfortunately, many of the oldest cities have the oldest, most decrepit water infrastructure and, like Detroit, don't have the tax base to upgrade it. Yet without those upgrades, these cities' future growth is threatened.

My organization, New Jersey Future (http://njfuture.org) is doing a lot of work on the problem of urban water infrastructure in New Jersey's oldest cities -- focusing on best practices, public education, innovative financing, and inclusion of green infrastructure to reduce the strain on existing facilities. Resources are being assembled on our website at http://njfuture.org/water.