State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The State of Water in America

Guest Post By Colin Sabol, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for ITT’s Fluid and Motion Control division

Today, World Water Day, is a day designed to draw attention to the state of one of the world’s most precious resources. This is a global issue with many regional and local implications. Here in America, drinking water is under threat from many forces, but none so consistently overlooked as aging, deteriorating infrastructure. Our nation’s water systems – everything that gets clean water to homes and buildings and takes dirty water away – are crumbling under the combined pressures of population growth, rapid urbanization and chronic underinvestment, and the price we pay can be measured in wasted water, wasted energy, lost productivity and risks to public health.

A burst water pipe. Source: ITT

A few stats:

  • In the United States, 36 states expect water shortages by 2013.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 1.7 trillion gallons of water are wasted every year due to water main breaks and other leaks, enough water to provide the country’s top 10 cities with clean water for one year
  • The federal government estimates that the water lost just from water main breaks is worth about $2.6 billion annually.
  • According to the EPA, blocked or broken pipes release as much as 10 billion gallons of raw sewage every year.

We no longer have the luxury of inaction. The solution is as simple as it is complex: we must increase funding and investment to protect the resource we value above nearly all others. As with anything we value, protecting our access to clean drinking water is not free.

Funding for the nation’s drinking water systems comes from water tariffs – our collective water bill. A portion also comes from federal tax dollars, mainly through the U.S. EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), a system of grants for municipalities. However total funding through this program comes to a mere $1.4 billion per year. This is not nearly enough: the EPA has estimated that approximately $1 trillion will be needed to pay for national water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years. We are currently falling short by about $19 billion per year.

The solution cannot come from public funding alone. Overcoming our nation’s infrastructure gap must begin with the nation’s water users, including businesses and the more than 100 million American households. Water is not only a precious resource. Hiding water’s true value through government subsidies, as we do now, discourages conservation and in many cases actually encourages waste.

In these tough economic times, the thought of paying more for anything is a bitter pill to swallow. But at ITT we’ve seen, in part through our work with Water for People, a leading water NGO, that even people in poor countries are willing to pay the full price of water. In Pamesebal, a village in North Guatemala, villagers pay for their water depending on how much they use – what amounts to about half a penny per gallon. The average price we pay here in the U.S. is about .15 of a penny per gallon. So villagers in Guatemala, who may live on less than $2 per day, are paying three times as much as the average American.

There is evidence that suggests Americans understand the value of their drinking water, and would be willing to support increased tariffs: the recent ITT Value of Water Survey , a nationwide poll that included registered voters, found that two-thirds are willing to pay an average of 11 percent more each month to upgrade our water system. If we took them up on their offer, for about the cost of three bottles of water per month per household, the United States could invest an additional $5.4 billion per year to maintain our public water systems, more than four times the current federal investment through the DWSRF.

Even this would be only a small part of the equation: the nation’s heaviest water users are industry and agriculture, the latter accounting for some 80 percent of fresh water withdrawals. Imagine the investment that could be made in our country if we extended such pricing to these sectors.

Neither I nor ITT suggest that Americans bear the burden alone: solving our nation’s water woes is a shared responsibility, and because water is a public resource, government must lead. Policymakers at all levels must institute sound water policies that close the funding gap, promote conservation and help educate the public about the true value and cost of water.

The private sector has an important role to play as well: raising awareness of the issue and reducing consumption through conservation and reuse. ITT, for example, reduced its global water consumption by almost 30 percent over just five years.

At the end of the day, water issues must be addressed holistically. There is no silver bullet. But it is impossible to address water scarcity in any meaningful way without first addressing the state of our nation’s water infrastructure. On this World Water Day, we must all begin to think about the value of water and paying a cost that better reflects that value. Protecting our access to this most precious of resources depends on it.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Arthur Michael Ambrosino
13 years ago

Suppose we can sandharvest minerals of economic importance to completely pay for freshwater impoundments. Then imagine there is so much money generated from sandharvesting these minerals that there is plenty of money to build pipelines capable of gravitationally carrying, 1 billion gallons of water to New York City every day. Visit,

And so much more,

Arthur Michael Ambrosino

12 years ago

[…] gallon of water. Yet, the price that the average American pays is 15 percent of a penny per gallon (Sabol, 2011). So this shows that people in poorer countries pay three times as much as the average […]

chris fulton
chris fulton
10 years ago

“Water is tomorrow’s big problem. The water consumption (in data centers) is super embarrassing. It just doesn’t feel responsible. We need designs that stop using water.” Amazon’s James Hamilton, 2009

The enormous volume of water required to cool high-density server farms is making water management a growing priority for data center operators. A 15-megawatt data center can use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day, according to one estimate


Drew Green
6 years ago

Water will be to the post 2020 world what oil was to the 1980’s. It’s scarcity will cause wars and a lot of deaths and suffering. After all, man can survive for days without food, but without water, that is an entirely different situation.

5 years ago

How does USA get so much water besides being a MEDC as well as getting enough precipitation?