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Water, A User’s Guide. Part Three: Infrastructure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
September 19, 2021

The quantity and quality of water are essential to the economic and political health and safety of a country and its citizens. Recent events demonstrate that ensuring safe water and controlling floods and water disasters requires an extensive infrastructure: public water, storm water and wastewater systems; dams, reservoirs, canals and waterway controls; and infrastructure-related technology

Public water systems provide water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances and may be publicly or privately owned. Ensuring safe water in public water systems is an ongoing and expensive proposition. It would require $45 billion to replace every lead pipe in the United States. One-third of all community water systems in California may be at high risk of failing to deliver potable water. Pipes and connections in all systems must be monitored regularly and replaced as necessary.

Wastewater and stormwater management systems may be linked administratively to water systems or managed separately. Conservation is a part of this. Recycling wastewater conserves water: it conserves gray water, which can be used for landscape and non-consumptive purposes; and biologically filtered black water which is returned to an aquifer. In Israel, a leader in repurposing water, the average household consumes 37 gallons per household a day while the United States consumes 300 gallons a day. El Paso is upgrading its wastewater system so recycled water is treated and purified enough to be returned directly to taps. Public safety also counts; stormwater systems must be able to predict and manage flooding.

Reservoirs, levees, canals and other engineering processes control water, both to ensure its availability and to prevent flooding. Reservoirs, a source of water supply, deliver water directly to treatment plants and hydroelectric turbines. Reservoirs also regulate water flow downstream for irrigation and flood control and are important for recreation and related economic activity. Reservoirs, levees and canals, like dams, require constant monitoring as failures can result in significant loss of property and life.

Dams are complex structures subject to forces that can cause failure over the entire life of the dam. The fact that a dam has stood safely for years is not an indication that it will not fail. Seepage, significant rainfall or natural seismic or weather events can weaken structures. A 2017 study estimated that $60.7 billion in repair work is needed at state and locally owned dams. This does not take into consideration situations like mining tailings ponds, which may contain toxic chemicals. Public administrators make regular decisions about inspection and maintenance, as well as difficult decisions to release additional water from a dam when rainfall may create overtopping, leading to flooding downstream and threatening residential and commercial areas.

Technology related to infrastructure includes drones, which are used to monitor irrigation, track water use, plan water projects and identify possible dam collapse or flooding. Other technology provides early warning of impending super storms or flash floods; such technology continuously tracks water quality, monitors pipeline integrity and develops new plumbing standards. Computer-based mapping designs systems and supports the construction and maintenance of water delivery and control processes, including pipelines, pumps and reservoirs. Conservation technology makes a difference; in Las Vegas technology and policies have led to a 47% decrease in water use since 2000 despite a 52% population growth. Emerging technologies can improve the delivery and management of water. WaterStart, a non-profit collective of globally recognized leaders seeking to scale up new solutions to water challenges, provides a channel for pooling resources to accelerate the development and adoption of innovative water technologies.

Recent Congressional actions on infrastructure are part of a long history on the issue. The 2016 Water Projects bill focused on the Flint water situation, the California drought, the restoration of watersheds and improvement of flood control. America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 sought to reduce toxic algae blooms in Florida and restore Gulf Coast wetlands, and to improve aging drinking water systems. Small grants have helped communities improve water conservation and reliability, including upgrading meters, automating systems and installing radios and data loggers.

Infrastructure is not without its unintended costs and impacts. Richard White of Stanford University argues that the long term and unintended impacts of infrastructure projects include overbuilding, as well as social and environmental costs. For example, reservoirs and their associated dams can affect the biology of an area, flooding ecosystems and blocking migrating fish. There also are social and cultural consequences.

All the above demonstrate that the management of infrastructure is a significant administrative responsibility, including

  • Ensuring that the water meets the requirements of such diverse uses as the protection and propagation of fish and wildlife; recreation; agricultural, industrial and navigational purposes; and urban water systems.
  • Having a basic understanding of the engineering requirements of a water system that continues to meet quality and safety standards.
  • Creating systems to monitor water quality and adequacy of water delivery and controls.
  • Creating emergency plans in the event of a water system failure.
  • Recognizing the need for new infrastructure or major repairs and maintenance.
  • Establishing policy, budgetary and staffing plans to meet quality, quantity, delivery and safety standards.
  • Communicating with citizens, businesses and elected officials about infrastructure-related concerns.

Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership, and in state and local government. She currently lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. This column is part of a six-column on water issues of concern to public administrators.

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