“But not a drop to drink”, completes the verse from the” Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Unlike the storied sailor whose thirst could not be quenched by the bountiful surrounding waters due to the ocean’s salinity, much of our nation faces decline in available potable water due to faulty and antiquated infrastructure and regulatory regimes.
The water and sewer systems for most of the older U.S. metropolitan areas were designed and constructed over a century ago to combat widespread health epidemics. Concurrently, the first federal legislation addressing water pollution nationwide was the Safe Rivers and Harbors Act of 1898. Municipalities established public water and sewer authorities to build the infrastructure necessary to supply individual home and business with sanitized water at approximately the same time they created electric public utilities to provide electricity to residential and commercial establishments.
Some systems were better designed than others. For instance, the city of Baltimore, which in the early 20th century, was a major industrial port, invested in separate systems for water filtration and runoff and developed a series of natural reservoirs to assure long-term adequate supply. Washington, DC, on the other hand, a smaller, less-industrialized city under the local control of the federal government, did not. The dilatory efforts of skimping on infrastructure such as opting for the combined sewer overflow manifest themselves to this day with every heavy rain, often flooding Constitution Avenue and routinely overwhelming the capacity of Blue Plains Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Add other considerations, such as exponential growth of the Washington metropolitan area, particularly in the last fifty years, spiraling maintenance costs of an aging system, and escalating electricity costs for water filtration, and the whole system appears increasingly frail as significant capital improvements are indefinitely postponed.
Recent events highlight water service vulnerabilities even in the tony parts of Montgomery County, Maryland. Eighteen months ago, River Road just beyond the Beltway in Potomac made national news when a primary water main burst caused stranded motorists to be rescued with the assistance of helicopters. The breech took weeks to repair on this major artery. More recently, in July, the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission (WSSC) had to impose a ban on all outside residential use and curtailment of inside water use when fissures were detected and repaired on another major water main in Potomac. The ban, to boot, was very ineffectively administered: WSSC targeted a 30% reduction of use; only 14% occurred. On July 25, when a storm knocked out power to the water filtration plant servicing 70% of customer supply in the area, another water rationing edict was imposed until electricity was restored.
How do we avoid further collapse? First, the issue of increasing unreliability of service and infrastructure has to be joined and elevated in priority by policy leaders, decision makers, and the media both nationally and locally. Only when pervasive public pressure is expressed, will politicians and utility administrators seriously address long-term capital investment. Perhaps You Tube streaming of videos excavating century-old rotting wooden pipes carrying water under the upscale retail district of Bethesda might do the trick.
Second, once the public’s attention has been properly focused, an expert assessment of the real costs of providing filtrated water under the current system is needed; no ratepayer in the U.S., or for that matter in the world, pays close to full cost. This stark reality must be fully understood before rates can be appropriately adjusted.
Third, with drastic increases in water/sewer fees looming, we should reexamine comprehensively how drinking water is regulated and metered. For instance, throughout the U.S., of all the water regulatory subject to filtration, only 3% is actually used for drinking. This dynamic is unsustainable. With the aid of modern technology, individual customers should have greater control and input over the filtered water they use.
Likewise, modern technology could help bring the customer water meter into the 21st century. Given that an ever-increasing component of water filtration expense is electricity and given that electric rates vary with supply and demand, so should water rates be similarly charged and metered. With meter upgrades, the wise user can more directly manage his water bill.
Finally, as the recent storm damage has demonstratively reminded us, the electric and water utilities are too closely linked, particularly water filtration with power generation, making both systems vulnerable to the same disrupting event, natural or otherwise.
We may not be floating in the salty ocean as the ancient mariner, but we could end up just as thirsty.
Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.