Are America’s water pipes broken? For millions of citizens across the country, it may seem so. The well-documented examples of Flint, Jackson, New Orleans, or Baltimore may well seem alarming. But in fact, they are just the tip of an iceberg that reveals more every day. The Water Crisis in America is not looming: it’s already there.
Over the past six months, I met with 20 subject matter experts to not only identify the problems but also come up with solutions. From academics to investors through politicians, water industry leaders, influencers, and NGOs, I spent months interviewing them, recouping their inputs, synthesizing their thoughts, connecting them to existing research, and enhancing it with dozens more insights I’ve collected over the years.
The result is the massive infographic – or cartoon – you find on this page. It wasn’t free to make, for sure, but it will be free for you to read, digest, and share forever.
All I ask, if you find it of interest, is to spread the word! Share it on your social media, link to it from your websites, or recommend it to your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your help!
Rethinking Water – Solving the Water Crisis in AmericaRethinking-Water-Solving-the-Water-Crisis-in-America-Single-Page
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Table of contents
- Rethinking Water – Solving the Water Crisis in America
- Framing the Challenge
- Fixing the Broken Economics that cause the Water Crisis in America
- From Centralized to Decentralized: A New Era of Health and Hygiene
- Where shall we start to solve the Water Crisis in America?
Framing the Challenge
Also see my detailed article on the 4 Horsemen of America’s Water Apocalypse
The water crisis in America is a complex and multifaceted issue, so defining the challenge is a task in itself. When digging into it, some patterns start to appear:
It may not reveal first, but “the economics of Water is the single issue that creates all the other problems!” – as Tom Rooney shared with me.
And the least we can say is that the economics of water in the US is a complex issue. Infrastructure costs, access to funding, pricing structures…
For many of the experts I interviewed, the current economic system is not sustainable and needs to be reformed to ensure that everyone has access to clean and affordable water.
The “Free Water” non-sense
To start with, and as Seth Siegel shared: “we are not charged the right amount of money for water. That’s to say we’re not charged enough.” For too many Americans, water is not priced in a way that accurately reflects the true costs of providing it.
On the one hand, this can lead to overuse and wastage of water resources, but worse, it also generates a lack of funding for necessary infrastructure upgrades.
Another issue is that many of the costs associated with maintaining and upgrading water infrastructure are borne by local communities, while the benefits of this infrastructure are often spread across the entire country.
This can lead to a lack of funding for necessary upgrades, in the best possible definition of what George McGraw depicts as a “wrong pocket syndrome.”
2.2 million Americans without Drinking Water
Last but not the slightest symptom of broken economics, NGOs like DigDeep showed how the current system does not do enough to address the needs of low-income communities and other marginalized groups, who are often disproportionately affected by the water crisis in America.
Originally, Tom Rooney called it “broken pipes” – and I guess he’s right to a broad extent. But the problem is even larger: many of the pipes, treatment plants, and storage facilities that make up America’s water system are old and in need of repair or replacement.
The best way to testify to this need is to see how 21 million people rely on community water systems that had violated health-based quality standards in 2015 – as Upmanu Lall and Maura Allaire showed in a 2018 paper.
This aging infrastructure also reflects in the “5’000 water utilities [that] ran out of money,” as Sean Davis underlines.
As one would expect, climate change is also a significant contributor to the Water Crisis in America.
Indeed, extreme weather events are happening with increased frequency and severity. Droughts, as seen in California, storms, which can damage water infrastructure and disrupt water supplies – something we’ve seen, for instance, with Katrina in New Orleans, and floods, like the one Jackson had to face.
That can, of course, have dramatic consequences, as Nick Shufro recalls: “People’s homes are often their largest investments. Yet there are only 9 million flood insurance policies in place in the US…”
Changing rain patterns
As Upmanu Lall underlines: “we will see droughts in places that are normally well-stocked with water.” But the other end of the spectrum is equally problematic: “last October in New York, eight people died from basements being flooded because the sewers could not contain the water from the storm.”
Sea level rise
This one as well doubles up. On one end, freshwater resources become increasingly contaminated with saltwater along the American coasts. On the other end, sea level rise is a direct threat to coastal cities, as Paul Gallay recalls with the example of New York. “By 2050, the water levels will be nearly two feet higher than they were in the year 2000. And that’s if we’re lucky! If we’re unlucky, it will be higher still…”
To name two further factors contributing to the Water Crisis in America, we can discuss the changes in temperature, which affect the water ecosystem’s equilibrium, and the increased demand for water on all municipal, industrial and agricultural uses of water.
A looming Water Pollution Crisis in America?
The culprits are all over the places: industrial and agricultural activities, as well as urbanization and development, can pollute water sources and make them unsafe for drinking, swimming, and fishing.
But recently, some pollutants have seen increased scrutiny to better understand the threat they represent for 330 million Americans. As Henrik Hagemann underlines: “compared to 2016, the EPA went out on June 15th, 2022 and said, PFOA is 17,000 times more toxic than they thought. And that’s 100,000 times more toxic than they thought in 2009!”
Yet, Seth Siegel asks the right question: “Do you think it is this year that we discovered that PFAS is dangerous?” – and as you would expect, the answer is no.
But who’s willing to pay the $370 Billion needed to treat them out of the water cycle? To answer this question, we will need to solve the broken economics of water for sure (guess what comes next?).
Fixing the Broken Economics that cause the Water Crisis in America
See my detailed article on Why Greedy Capitalists is the Best Thing for America’s Water
If I’ve said that the economics of Water is the single issue that creates all other problems, we may be well inspired to start solving the water crisis in America by fixing that, right?
Increase the water infrastructure funding
There won’t be a winner-takes-all solution to the complex economic problem that leads to the water crisis in America. Hence, the solution will have to be a combination of different approaches.
For instance, grants, loans, other financial assistance programs, and, generally speaking, government funding will help. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides funding for water infrastructure projects through its State Revolving Fund program.
And, of course, the Biden-Harris administration fed $111 Billion into the system within their American Jobs Plan.
This is historic and unprecedented: yet, if the needs are “estimated to $1 Trillion for the US” as Damian Georgino recalls, we’re discussing here only 10% of the solution. There is a need for more!
Teaming up to solve the water crisis in America
The next source of money to tap into will be outside of governments and come from the private sector leveraging the private-public partnerships mechanism (PPPs).
PPPs involve partnerships between government and private sector entities, in which the private sector provides funding for infrastructure projects in exchange for a long-term contract to operate and maintain the infrastructure.
That vehicle sometimes comes with a bad rap, especially linked to the way it got overused in the 90s. “But we also have tons of examples of success stories in PPPs” advocates Patrick Decker, the CEO of Xylem.
And indeed, even the United Nations support the deployment of PPPs today as a way to fill the water gaps, assuming there’s a balanced repartition of risks and rewards.
More financing mechanisms
Beyond PPPs, local governments and water utilities can also raise funds for infrastructure projects by issuing bonds or other financing mechanisms. This can include revenue bonds, general obligation bonds, and special assessment districts.
Other new innovative financing options have emerged, such as Green Bonds which are bonds issued specifically to finance projects that have environmental benefits, such as water infrastructure projects.
Private sector companies and organizations can also invest in water infrastructure projects through direct investment. “Today, about 15% of the American water sector is in private hands,” recalls Henry Cordes. And companies like Central States Water Resources have shown how one can be profitable and successful while bettering the water infrastructure in underserved areas.
Examples of clever funding mechanisms in practice
- In 2019, the state of California approved $1.75 billion in funding for the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program. This funding will be used to help disadvantaged communities improve their water infrastructure and comply with state and federal regulations.
- The city of Newark, New Jersey, which had issues with lead contamination in its water supply, has used a combination of government funding and private investments to replace lead service lines and improve its water infrastructure.
- In the city of San Diego, California, a public-private partnership was established to fund and build a $1 billion Pure Water project, which is a large-scale water purification and reuse program.
Adjusting the water rates
Finally, if we’re not paying water at its right price, it certainly contributes to the water crisis in America. Utilities often aren’t entitled by politicians to charge what they should to all water users. That goes from city water that’s undervalued to industries that get discounts through irrigators that basically access water for free in the middle of dry areas in a drought.
If raising the price of water never helped anyone to win an election, as both Tom Rooney, and Paul O’Callaghan have told me, solving this water crisis will require long-term vision (5-10 years) and even visionary approaches (50 years+) from people in charge.
If water hygiene is arguably the most potent driver to humanity doubling its life expectancy in a century, we certainly don’t want to walk the same path the other way round because we failed to maintain and upgrade our water infrastructure in time…
From Centralized to Decentralized: A New Era of Health and Hygiene
See my detailed article on This Tool that Granted us 4 Years More to Live… and that we shall kill!
If we further break down the advancements responsible for our longer life expectancy, “the centralized sewer is the single largest contributor to life expectancy increase over time!” explains Josiah Cox.
And he’s right – centralized sewers have directly offered four more years to live. So why am I crazily suggesting replacing them?
Well, simply because they’re expensive. And if we assume it won’t be possible to get all the funding needed to do “things like we’ve always done,” it may be time to become a bit creative – dare I say, clever.
The economic drawbacks of the centralized approach
As Upmanu Lall demonstrates, “around 70 to 75% of the cost is in the pipes and pumps, not in the treatment or storage. And when these pipes fail, they cost half a million a mile to replace.”
Now, people have not built central infrastructure out of stupidity. Given the technical advancement of the times, it was the best leverage of scale effects, as it allowed technical specialists to get the best bang for their time and physical capacity to reach plants.
Yet, there’s a new kid in town for a while now: digitization. Something I’ve already covered in depth so I won’t repeat myself here!
What it changes is that “you don’t need 10 chemists at 10 treatment plants and 10 pump operators at 10 pumps anymore.” as Upmanu Lall still explains. You can instead embrace the age of distributed treatments, a potentially potent way to solve the water crisis in America.
Multiple speeds of growth within the decentralized world
As a consequence, decentralized treatments tend to grow faster than traditional infrastructure. But they also see some cool kids among them: Point of Entry and Point of Use treatments develop even faster.
They offer the perspective to distribute the water approach in an even more radical manner – something I’ve discussed in depth with both Upmanu Lall and Seth Siegel.
Now, there’s a sector of the American water sector where the crisis seems taken care off slightly better, and spoiler, that’s neither in the municipal nor in the agricultural vertical but in the third one:
The (successful?) industrial approach to solving the water crisis in America
Numbers speak for themselves: between 1985 and 2015, the volume of water abstraction in the US industry was reduced by 43%!
Sure, there’s been some relocations and water efficiency measures. But also a change of mindset in industrials, that started seeing wastewater treatment as something else than a cost to be in business: a reliable and sustainable water source.
Reusing wastewater in industries is by definition a decentralized or distributed approach, and clearly goes in the right direction. We’re still at the beginning of the tidal wave, but there’s a merit to underline how a sector starts heading in the right direction when it receives the appropriate incentives.
Indeed, as Damian Georgino recalls: “we worry about chips: 60% come from Taiwan. Taiwan has its worst drought in 60 years. Wonder why there’s a chip issue?”
But how did industrials suddenly become water experts?
Successful private-private partnerships
Spoiler: they didn’t. Instead, industrial players teamed up with water industry players to create win-win scenarios in which water and wastewater as a service deliver water solutions in utility-like setups and risk sharing, but on premise on their industrial sites.
Wanna dive deeper into WaaS? You may want to check my conversations with Steven De Laet or Cambrian Innovation‘s approach.
But in a nutshell, the solution to the water crisis in America will at least partially be distributed and involve new approaches and business models.
Where shall we start to solve the Water Crisis in America?
See my detailed article on the 9 tips to solve the American Water Crisis FAST
Let’s be clear; I won’t pretend to lay out a detailed and exhaustive blueprint here. But when listening to the 20 experts I met for this exercise, I identified some patterns.
Hence, here’s how we could start solving this water crisis we observe in America.
Communicate, Explain, and Market
We have to take control of the water narrative! How is it still possible that people debate the value of water in 2023, while we just outlined how the water crisis is not looming but already there?
It can be counter-intuitive for water professionals to discuss their knowledge. After all, we’re poo-engineers; how can that be interesting? Well, that’s exactly what we have to explain. Tell the world how water hygiene is crucial to our well-being. And how nothing can be produced or harvested without water.
That way everyone will better grasp the value of water, and in turn, marketing it will be easier. Again, “marketing” is not a scare crow!
Become sexier and attract a new generation
Marketing is also a key to renewing the water sector’s age pyramid. We’re an aging sector, and that’s a threat to the future if we don’t act today! Errick Simmons explains it well: “we have to become as attractive than the Apple and Samsung of this World.”
This can be through digitization, which will increase the “coolness” of Water. But even more, while a generation looks for purpose, where better than in Water will they find it?
It is also a duty for universities to present water topics in the right light. To take the baton, bring it forward and pass it over to this new generation of water professionals.
Don’t reinvent the wheel and walk the talk
None of these recipes to get the ball rolling are rocket science, right? But why should they be? We shouldn’t shy away from applying what is proven to work.
The energy sector is digital and distributed, and arguably successful. People find a purpose and an interest in renewables and sustainability. Let’s emulate this and apply it to water!
There’s also a responsibility of the water industry here. We have a footprint – what we do for other sectors and customers. But we also have a handprint – what we apply to ourselves. By the numbers it doesn’t matter that much, but it’s an opportunity to show the world that we can apply what we preach. And in turn, become role models.
Influence, influence and influence
I’ve heard Seth Siegel explain how he wasn’t destined to be a best-selling author and an acclaimed public speaker. But that was his skillset so he put it to good use! Does that mean every water professional should write a book? Of course, no.
But we all have a voice, and we shall strive to get it heard.
My contribution is this podcast, this blog and these cartoons. Good for me? Well, that’s not the point. If all of that happens somewhere in the underground, it’s not of great use.
That’s where I need you to pick it up! If you like this cartoon, please make it live. Link to this page, and recommend it to your friends, colleagues, and fellow water professionals.
And come tell me how to make it even better in the future. That’s how we will ALL do better in that said future!