The one consistent fear that I have had since taking my first Geology class has always been a worry about having enough water to survive. So when I read about the horrendous water waste caused by aging water infrastructure, poor maintenance and a lack of interest to do much about it, it drives me nuts.

Just how bad is the water problem? This post reviews the Earth’s water supply, the condition of our water systems and finally what can be done about it.

The Earth’s Water Supply Problem

Only 3.5% of the Earth’s water is drinkable. 99% of this amount is either found in glaciers, ice caps or groundwater and is for all practicable purposes unavailable for consumption.

That leaves the 1% of all drinkable water to be spread among 7 billion people (317 million for USA) for irrigation, manufacturing, power production, waste and drinking. The EPA has already stated that 36 States are facing water shortages. The fight for water resources between States is growing. One only has to look at the fight currently going on out West for water from the Colorado River

The threat of water wars is a known issue and has been noted by most international security agencies and the U.S. State Department. The problem is not just the climatic conditions that cause drought and floods but also the poverty, social tensions, water mismanagement and poor water quality that is affecting stability both domestically and globally.

The Condition of our Nation’s Water Infrastructure

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a benchmark report on the condition of our Nation’s water infrastructure titled The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis. This report was followed in 2004 by United States General Accounting Office (GAO) Water Infrastructure Asset Management Analysis.

These reports identified several critical issues including:

Aging Water Infrastructure

  • Approximately one-third of the utilities were deferring maintenance because of insufficient funding.
  • The vast majority of the nation’s pipe network was installed after the WWII.
  • 20 percent or more of pipelines are nearing the end of their useful life.
  • A lack of basic plans for asset management.
  • The top 7% of water systems account for 65% of water infrastructure needs.
  • The top 29% of wastewater systems account for 89% of infrastructure needs.
  • For 1 in 10 utilities, 50 percent or more of their pipelines were nearing the end of their useful life.

Since the original government reports were published more studies and reports on water infrastructure by the EPA have shown that:

  • Many cities lose between 10-30% of their water supply due to leaks.
  • There is an average of 700 water main breaks every day.
  • Some water systems lose 60% of water due to leaky pipes.
  • The most common defect is leakage through the pipe wall, joints or connections.
  • Leaks allow contaminants to leak in, soil erosion or stop pipes from working

The impact of the preceding list touches on virtually every aspect of our lives ranging from health concerns (poor quality or contaminated water) to business operations.

Without substantial action soon, the way we live our lives is going to take a very negative turn in the coming years. As the EPA and GAO tell us; much of the problem has been a missed opportunity to perform better water asset management.

What Can Be Done About Water Utility Asset Management

This does not have to happen if water utilities can get back on track with good enterprise asset management. The cost is not cheap but the cost of not doing proper asset management is increasing with every year that goes by.

“Investment needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years, assuming pipes are replaced at the end of their service lives and systems are expanded to serve growing populations. Delaying this investment could mean either increasing rates of pipe breakage and deteriorating water service, or suboptimal use of utility funds, such as paying more to repair broken pipes than the long-term cost of replacing them”

Source: American Water Works Association

One tool available for better asset management is an Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) solution. EAM systems are designed to help manage assets over the entire course of its useful lifecycle.

There is no quick fix for our nation’s water infrastructure problem. It is not realistic to think your local utility can just go out and repair or replace every pipe and fitting.

Just buying new assets is not a long-term solution because if they are not maintained properly, their replacement will be more expensive than their purchase.

This brings us to the true value of an EAM for water utilities. EAM is a computerized tool used for:

EAM Advantages for Water Asset Management
  • Identifying, organizing and describing assets and their condition.
  • Managing assets from the planning stage through replacement including:
    • Scheduling regular maintenance and inspections
    • Documenting all work needed and performed including specialized technology work.
    • Keeping track of all documents such as schematics, photos and contracts.
  • Projecting capital expenditure needs based upon an assets maintenance history or condition.
  • Enabling water asset managers to always know the location, condition and work history of every asset.
  • Making maintenance proactive instead of waiting for a problem to occur first.

It has been over 10 years since the EPA and GAO identified weak asset management as a primary cause for our nation’s water woes. Since that time there has been a lot of discussion but very little progress. The technology is available; it just needs to be implemented.

Maybe, just maybe, better asset management will help governments find a workable solution to meet the ever increasing demand for fresh water.