In the spring of 2010, a massive water pipe failure
This catastrophic event graphically illustrated the connection between health of America's water system and the health of its people. And although it was the largest and most consequential water system failure in recent history, it is by no means the only one.
For example, in 2009, the city of Portland, Oregon, instructed city residents to boil their water prior to drinking, as potentially deadly E. coli had infiltrated the city's reservoir. In Washington, DC, a huge water break turned a major commuter route into a raging river, putting the lives of several commuters and the rescue crews in serious danger.
Water system failures do not always end well. In 1993 a bug by the name of Cryptosporidium made its way through the water supply in Milwaukee. Hundreds of thousands of people drank contaminated water and estimates suggest that more than 100 may have died as a direct result.
In cities across the country, water main breaks are a routine occurrence. Most of the time they are simply an inconvenience. Traffic is briefly snarled while utility works patch the pipes. Homes and businesses lose water pressure for a few hours. But these small breaks are warnings that larger disasters may be on the horizon.
Why is this happening? The answer is simple. In many cities and towns, our water systems are old and worn out. U.S. cities first began laying pipes for household water delivery and sewage treatment in the late 1800s. By the 1930s, the backyard outhouse was a rarity in all but the most rural areas.
Not only are these systems still in use, often these very same pipes are hauling clean water to your home, and dirty sewage off to the treatment plant -- except when they break and mingle their waters, as happened in Massachusetts.
Clean water is essential to life, and these recent incidents reveal how we can no longer take it for granted that it will be available to our families in the years to come. Today's government leaders face a dilemma. The longer they argue over where to find the money to overhaul these vital systems, the more expensive the eventual repair bill will be.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to recognize that our water bills have too low, for too long. If we had all paid just a few cents or a few dollars more per month when those systems were built, there would be plenty of money available to retrofit, overhaul, and upgrade the systems a century later.
So now the elected officials of today face difficult choices. Facing a repair bill that amounts to many billions of dollars, they must answer the question about where the money will come from, and how to raise it fairly.
An obvious source of funds is the ratepayers themselves. After all, isn't it fair that the people who use the water system pay to maintain it? In the Washington, DC area, officials estimate they would have to raise water bills by more than 400% to raise enough funds to start repairing the system faster than it is breaking. Is that fair for the residents of a city with so many poor neighborhoods?
Another source of funds is the U.S. taxpayer. After all, it's certainly not fair to allow an upstream city to share its water pollution problem with every other city downstream. That's why the federal government in Washington has long organized a rotating 'loan' fund that cities can tap into, but the amounts are woefully small compared to the need. Is it fair to raise the taxes of every American to improve the water systems for some?
A third choice is business. Some cities are selling their public water systems to private corporations. These companies invest the money needed to bring the system up to par, in return for the opportunity to raise rates to a level that brings in a profit. This raises questions of fairness, too. After all, the rate payers built the system -- and now its sold to a business at a fire sale price? And do we want one of life's necessities provided with the same level of customer service as the average cable company?
Up until now, elected officials have found it easier to put off these choices until next year -- year after year. But as millions of Massachusetts residents ask themselves where they can get a safe drink of water, it's clear that we are running out of room to duck the difficult decisions before us.