- Our drinking water infrastructure is crumbling, underfunded, and not managed with the best tech available.
- Climate change is making things worse, as evident by the aftermath of the Texas storms.
- Investing in new technology can help ensure Americans have uninterrupted access to clean water.
- Carol Browner is the former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under the Obama administration, and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Virtually every part of our lives depends on sophisticated technologies to make things work better – from medical care to online ordering. Yet, in far too many towns and cities, our drinking water infrastructure – which brings clean water to our families – is not managed with the best technology available.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently rated the US an embarrassing C- in their Infrastructure Report Card. They found that 6 billion gallons of clean, safe drinking water (enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools) are lost every day through leaky pipes, while a water main breaks every 2 minutes, totaling nearly 238,000 breaks per year.
Our drinking water infrastructure system is made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes, and unfortunately, as the report’s authors said, “the system is aging and underfunded.”
Collecting water and moving it to where it’s needed most is a colossal, vital job. It’s one that most people take for granted and thousands of municipalities accomplish on shoestring budgets. While federal money previously represented 63% of capital spending in the water sector, that number has plummeted over the years, falling to only 9% by 2017.
And this aging, underfunded water system will now be under additional pressure from the growing impacts of climate change.
Increasing pressure on our water infrastructure
When most people think about climate change, they often think about shrinking polar ice caps or noxious pollution clogging our skylines. People don’t realize how vulnerable our water systems are to climate impacts – something that was made evident this past February when millions of people were cut off from clean drinking water in Texas.
Long-term effects of climate change in the United States are predicted to include changes in precipitation patterns and more droughts and heat waves. Those changes can bring urban flooding, burst pipelines, forest fires, and unpredictable and extreme rainy seasons. We will have water where we don’t normally have it, and not always where we need it.
When temperatures in Texas plummeted into the single digits, a series of infrastructure failures followed, leading to burst pipes that left millions of people without clean water. While Americans watched the news in horror, many found comfort in thinking that it couldn’t happen to them. But that’s simply not true. We are all potentially vulnerable to water scarcity and disruption.
Years of drought, increasing temperatures, and decreasing rainfall turned the entire West Coast into a tinderbox in 2020, a record-setting year for wildfires. A study released in the Geophysical Research Letters journal reported that a later onset of the rainy season in California, along with truncated rainy seasons during spring and fall, could have devastating results.
When a forest fire burns through an area, not only does it destroy all the vegetation, it can also burn a hardened crust into the soil that prevents it from being able to absorb and disperse water. As FEMA points out, those living downstream of these burn scar areas have a higher risk of flooding, which can last for years after the fire.
Crumbling infrastructure, shrinking budgets, and increased pressure from climate change all threaten millions of Americans with the risk of losing access to clean drinking water, contamination from sewer spills, and threats to home and safety from storms and flooding. So, what can we do about it?
The technological revolution that uplifted so many other industries has been slow to gain traction in the water utility industry. With the emergence of the smart city, municipalities are using sensors to monitor everything from traffic patterns to air quality. However, modernizing a dynamic, labyrinthine infrastructure is much more complex and expensive.
While water utilities do utilize technology – such as creating modeling tools to simulate weather, consumption, and wear and tear – an accurate, realistic simulation is hard to build. Likewise, simulating a storm water system, monitoring the system, and quickly recovering from a system failure are all very different and increasingly difficult scenarios.
One solution is to take advantage of the cloud. By using the cloud, water utilities can enhance their simulation capabilities with artificial intelligence, predictive models, and other innovative technologies without having to hire an entire IT and programming team to develop and maintain their own tools.
Currently, some of the largest utilities are already using artificial intelligence to crunch through their data, letting engineers and operators collaborate to target and manage their risks more effectively. The cloud is the great democratizer, giving smaller municipalities access to similar tools on a subscription and volume basis.
At the same time, adoption of new technologies shouldn’t overshadow the need for greater federal investment in our drinking water system. While the cloud can help us stretch our current budgets to get the most out of the infrastructure we have now, we can’t ignore the crumbling pipes and water mains under our feet.
That investment can’t just be limited to our largest cities, either. Municipalities of all sizes are dealing with added stressors due to climate change. The federal money we allocate to fixing this problem should reflect that.
Ticking time bomb
Make no mistake, there will be many more water utility failures across the country and more families going without clean water. If our water infrastructure – and technology platforms used to manage it – don’t modernize at a faster pace, these failures could result in devastating loss of life and property, along with trillions of dollars in damage. If we invest in cloud solutions that allow the prediction, prevention, and management of water emergencies, we can be better prepared for future emergencies and mitigate a catastrophic aftermath. It’s critical to address these issues now, before they become so widespread that they threaten the health, safety, and livelihoods of millions.
Fortunately, President Biden’s newly unveiled infrastructure plan includes funding for state and local governments to upgrade their water infrastructure. Local entities should use those funds in part to modernize the technology they use to manage their water systems. We have a Texas-sized opportunity to make the investments we need to make sure that what happened there never happens again.
Carol Browner, is the former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under the Obama administration, and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 2001. She is currently a senior counselor in the Sustainability practice at Albright Stonebridge Group. Innovyze board member 2018-2021.