Report highlights water infrastructure problems

BOSTON — More and more urban areas throughout the United States — in both dry and rainy locales — are facing growing pressures on their water infrastructure systems, necessitating both greater investments for overhaul and a change in development patterns that are more conducive to conservation, according to Infrastructure 2010: An Investment Imperative, a new report released by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Ernst & Young.

Citing “water profligacy as an American way of life,” the report cautions: “Most water districts do not charge ratepayers full outlays for constructing and maintaining systems…As a result, businesses and households tend to use water inefficiently and don’t conserve, even though per-capita water demand could outstrip future availability in some parts of the country…We are starting to see the limits of where people can go (to live).”

The supply/demand conundrum, it notes, stretches from arid California, Colorado, and Arizona to humid Georgia and Florida. The report shows that the United States has the highest “water footprint” in the world, using nearly 656,000 gallons per capita annually, greatly outstripping far more populous China, which uses less than 186,000 gallons per capita annually.

The integration of more concentrated land development into water management can reduce runoff and combat waste, states the report. “Changing growth patterns in response to dwindling resources will not come easy to a nation that is not accustomed to conserving water or land,” said ULI Executive Vice President Maureen McAvey. “But it’s clear that regional and local problems with both water quantity and quality will continue without a broad-based cutback in public water consumption and a change in how and where we build. Water infrastructure must be viewed through the lens of sustainable growth.”

“Over the past several years that we have been co-producing this report, perhaps the most troubling conclusion overall is that the world is moving ahead in rebuilding and expanding its infrastructure without the United States,” said Howard Roth, global real estate leader, Ernst and Young. “Bottom line, the U.S. is seriously threatening not only its quality of life now and for the future but also its very basic ability to compete economically with the rest of the world.

“Perhaps the priority in the U.S. should be a major jobs-producing investment, aimed at rebuilding national water, transportation, and other life support systems? Whatever the solution, this latest real estate report clearly shows that the rest of the world is gaining ground, and that China and the EU among others are already well on the road to recreating themselves as leaders for the new world order. The U.S. has to stop treading water and start treating water,” Roth added.

“It’s no secret that America’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, but the real problem is in what you can’t see,” said Michael Lucki, global leader of infrastructure and construction for Ernst & Young. “No other infrastructure category presents greater challenges than water. The decisions we make now will impact future generations for years to come.”

The report points out that according to the World Bank, 80 countries have water shortages that threaten health and economies, and 40 percent of the world has no access to clean water or sanitation. Water supply cannot keep pace with demand as populations increase — creating an acute problem in America and worldwide.

Infrastructure 2010 is the fourth of an annual overview series that analyzes the infrastructure needs and compares the infrastructure policies of the United States with other countries. Previous editions focused primarily on transportation systems, consistently finding that the United States continues to lag behind Asia and Europe in investments in transit systems, making its urban areas less competitive globally. This year, in addition to a transportation update, the report includes a look at water infrastructure — accessibility, availability, treatment, and delivery — and highlights water issues in 14 U.S. cities as illustrative of the problems looming throughout much of urban America.

The report offers solutions to the nation’s water infrastructure problems that are similar to those recommended for transportation issues, in that the solutions aim to foster collaboration among governmental entities, incorporate land use planning into infrastructure planning, and accept higher user costs as a necessity. “Fixes” specific to water include the following:

use federal allocations to encourage creation of long-range regional management programs to integrate water supply and conservation strategies with population projections, agricultural needs, and utility demand;

face reality, in that consumers and businesses will have to pay more to ensure reliability and safe supplies;

give top priority to repairing and upgrading existing systems;

incorporate land use into water management, including restricting development in areas without ample future water resources, using only native species in landscaping, and building more compactly to reduce runoff and enhance retention;

protect ecosystems to enable more natural storage and restoration;

use all available resources, including capturing rainwater, recycling wastewater, recharging groundwater, and making nonpotable water potable;

incentivize conservation by more closely linking water costs to system usage, repair, and maintenance; and

invest in desalinization technology.

The full report is available from the Urban Land Institute at www.uli.org under the “Research & Publications” tab.


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