Concerns regarding the vital and strategic importance of safe drinking water within the United States – both locally and across the country – were underscored at a May 14th panel discussion on “The Value of Water.” Held at the national “Newseum” in Washington, D.C., this program also related the significant role water has with our economy as well as being a critical national security issue.
Keynote speaker Ben Grumbles (U.S Water Alliance Executive Director—and forum organizer) emphasized not only the value of clean water to the nation and the world, but also the increasingly urgent need to rebuild America’s aging water infrastructure.
Attendees representing the front lines of municipal water authorities in the ongoing challenges to ensure that a water reliable infrastructure exists heard from prominent individuals that included George Hawkins of D.C. Water and Tony Parrot of Cincinnati Water Works. Other panel members echoing the myriad of issues that cities and towns encounter with their water infrastructure needs included representatives from the US EPA and American and Veolia water companies (private sector purveyors). Their comments echoed a familiar theme — making water a more visible and valuable commodity relates to the ability of cities and authorities to obtain the financing needed to replace aging treatment plants and pipelines that bring water to homes and business.
This fundamental question presented to the panelists, and in fact for all attendees (as well as those participating through a webinar) –“How do we raise the importance of the water infrastructure from being invisible to invaluable?”, regrettably remained unanswered.
However, the water industry is not alone in its concerns about how the public values it water resources, and recognizing the need to take action to change this paradigm. Another prominent organization engaged in a parallel pursuit has made serious resources available to answer this question. In April 2013, The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, launched a new endeavor – The Institute for Water.  Its mission is to help local and regional authorities discover the best ways to manage their water so that supplies will be less in question. Put simply, they primarily want people to think about what water means to them.
Kellogg Schwab, the Institute’s director states: “We all take water for granted – think nothing of paying $100 a month for a cable or cell phone, but rebel against $50 for our water bill.” He also emphasized this important message, “what we’ve come to realize is that human behavior is key to making water solutions sustainable.” The JHU Institute for Water is taking a global perspective and is reaching out across the engineering, research, and medical community to answer this question.
So what type of action does the water industry need to take to support the JHU Water Institute in achieving this common goal? What initiatives do we as industry professionals need to pursue to make people value their water and its infrastructure? Will a serious water outage such as the one that nearly occurred last summer in suburban Prince George’s county, on the outskirts of Washington, DC – where thousands of residents, businesses and industry were in grave danger of being without water for a serious period of time – become the catalyst? It didn’t appear to work last year.
It is also evident that this dialogue cannot become invisible. We need to identify approaches to get the public, communities, businesses, and of course our elected and appointed public officials sufficiently worried – and even angry – so that they value their water resources. What is the stimulus that will make them view water infrastructure as valuable – and not invisible – and eventually take meaningful, and sustained action to bring our country’s water and wastewater infrastructure into the 21st century? It’s time for you to weigh in with your suggestions. We need to hear from you. Send your suggestions to WDBC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE: The Newseum’s “Value of Water” panel discussion occurred simultaneously with an unrelated program on Capitol Hill – sponsored by the ASCE and Engineering News-Record – that focused on how to finance U.S. roads, bridges and other vital parts of the country’s transportation infrastructure. Taken together, these programs are an indication of the magnitude – the breadth and depth – of our country’s “infrastructure debt.”