The Coming Water Crisis
Many billions of dollars will be needed to quench America's thirst, but is private business the answer?
Both the sanguine and the worried agree on one thing: High costs will force the nation's water delivery system to evolve into something quite different. Citizens will be asked to pay more and use less. And big business, still a minor player in this country's water scene, is seeking a leading role. Private industry promises needed new capital and greater efficiency, but the jury is still out on whether it can deliver. Witness, for instance, the plight of Atlanta, which in 1999 became the largest U.S. city to privatize its water system. Already the city is weighing whether to nullify its 20-year contract with United Water, a subsidiary of the French company Suez.
Buried troubles. For now, issues of ownership, infrastructure, and health have been back-burnered while governments grapple with the threat of water system terrorism (box, Page 25). Terrorism, however, cannot long postpone action on the fissures spreading in the 700,000 miles of pipes that deliver water to U.S. homes and businesses. Three generations of water mains are at risk: cast-iron pipe of the 1880s, thinner conduits of the 1920s, and even less sturdy post-World War II tubes. While refusing to call it a crisis, Curtis says, "We are at the dawn of an era where utilities will need to make significant investments in rebuilding, repairing, or replacing their underground assets." Cost estimates range from EPA's $151 billion figure to a $1 trillion tally by a coalition of water industry, engineering, and environmental groups. The AWWA projects costs as high as $6,900 per household in some small towns.
Health is at risk if nothing is done. Already, water mains break 237,600 times each year in the United States. An industry study last year found pathogens and "fecal indicator" bacteria at significant levels in soil and trench water at repair sites. Of the 619 waterborne disease outbreaks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked between 1971 and 1998, 18 percent were due to germs in the distribution system. Researchers also question whether Americans are getting sick from their drinking water far more often than is recognized. "Is this happening below the radar screen, with low-level [gastrointestinal] things, where people will stay home from work, or be miserable at work, and not ever go to the doctor?" asks Jack Colford of the University of California-Berkeley. He is leading a major EPA-CDC-funded study comparing disease rates between participants who drink tap water through a sophisticated filter and those using a fake look-alike filter. Harvard researchers reported in 1997 that emergency-room visits for gastrointestinal illness rose after spikes in dirt levels that still remained well within federal standards.
Quality concerns. Just keeping up with federal regulations is increasingly difficult. The next five years will see more new rules than have been adopted in all the years since enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Environmental advocates blame the logjam on delays in addressing many health hazards. The arsenic standard, which produced an uproar early in the Bush administration, was years in the making. The EPA ultimately approved the same standard President Bill Clinton chose in his last days in office--reducing the arsenic limit from 50 to 10 parts per billion. The change of heart coincided with a National Academy of Sciences report, released to little notice the week of September 11. It indicated that even the Clinton standard was weak: As little as 3 ppb arsenic carries a far higher bladder and lung cancer risk than do other substances EPA regulates.