CHICAGO — Every day in America, we lose nearly 6 billion gallons of expensive, treated water due to crumbling infrastructure. Leaky, aging pipes and outdated systems are wasting 2.1 trillion gallons annually. That’s roughly 16 percent of our nation’s daily water use. Or, enough to swallow several major American cities whole:
• Manhattan under 298 feet of water
• Minneapolis under 172 feet of water
• Cleveland under 122 feet of water
• Milwaukee under 104 feet of water
• Detroit under 70 feet of water
• Chicago under 43 feet of water
The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on sustainable cities, released a report titled “The Case for Fixing the Leaks,” part of a collaborative campaign focused on Great Lakes states, calling for leadership in improved water management.
The initiative calls on state and municipal leaders, water service utilities, industry-related agencies, and Great Lakes institutions to work together on:
• new research regarding water loss and related issues;
• education and technical support opportunities to encourage industry best practices; and
• supportive policies that encourage best practices, public reporting, and improved planning.
In the Great Lakes states, a survey of water service providers estimated that 66.5 billion gallons of treated water is lost each year. That’s enough to fill Chicago’s Willis Tower 16 times, or enough to meet the annual water needs of 1.9 million Americans.
That’s also money down the drain. Water loss from failing infrastructure, faulty metering, and flat-out theft costs money, and can mean lost revenue for utilities and higher rates for consumers. Between 1996 and 2010, the cost of water services in the United States rose by nearly 90 percent.
“Our aging water supply infrastructure has been an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem,” said Harriet Festing, CNT’s Water Program director. “The good news is that there’s a clear desire for change. States and utilities around the country want to implement best practice water loss auditing, but are held up by lack of training, support, and incentives.”
A suite of cost-effective approaches to reducing water loss and providing smart, responsible water service to customers is now available. Best practices include state-of-the-art auditing methods, leak detection monitoring, targeted repairs or upgrades, pressure management, and better metering technologies. By adopting such practices, water service providers can save themselves and their communities money in the long run, while protecting water resources and generating economic growth.
Dollar for dollar, infrastructure investments create 40 percent more jobs than across-the-board tax cuts, and over five times more jobs than temporary business tax cuts. The U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimates that for every job added in the water workforce, 3.68 jobs are added to the national economy.
“When I travel around the Great Lakes states and across the country, I often hear the argument that it will cost too much to fix the leaks and make other infrastructure improvements,” said Danielle Gallet, CNT’s water supply program manager and infrastructure strategist. “To which I reply, ‘How much is it costing us to do nothing?’ We need to better understand what our water loss conditions actually are. Establishing universal auditing and standards across water utilities is a critical, and low-cost, first step.”
In his foreword to the report, David LaFrance, executive director of the American Water Works Association, the world’s largest organization of water professionals, noted that there are good reasons for utilities to be proactive. “Perhaps one of the greatest unintended consequences of failing to address leaky pipes is that it can undermine a utility’s credibility with its customers,” he wrote. “We all recognize that it makes little sense to invest in treating water to the highest standards, only to lose it on the way to the tap.”
The Case for Fixing the Leaks is part of CNT’s Smart Water for Smart Regions initiative, which seeks to help communities within the Great Lakes states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) deliver water services to homes and businesses more efficiently while sustaining water resources.
The report is available on the CNT website at www.cnt.org/resources/the-case-for-fixing-the-leaks.