U.S. water infrastructure needs seen as urgent

NEW YORK Fri May 8, 2009 3:12pm EDT

People walk along the Industrial Canal flood wall in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after the center of Hurricane Gustav came ashore, September 1, 2008. REUTERS/Dave Martin

People walk along the Industrial Canal flood wall in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after the center of Hurricane Gustav came ashore, September 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Dave Martin

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The crumbling U.S. infrastructure is routinely in plain sight, from potholes strewn across interstate highways built during the Eisenhower administration to rusting Depression-era bridges connecting those old highways.

At its most extreme, neglect can turn catastrophic: Experts had long expressed concern that New Orleans' aging levees could fail in the face of a major hurricane and they did dramatically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

By contrast, the condition of the nation's water infrastructure is often hidden from view. Drinking water and efficient sewage disposal is taken for granted along with the safety of the buried pipes, but was much on the minds of several guests at this week's Reuters Infrastructure Summit.

Out of sight, water infrastructure remained largely out of mind for U.S. policymakers in the federal economic stimulus effort. The $787 billion program allotted less than $10 billion for drinking and wastewater projects.

State and local officials will not turn the cash away but they say much more is needed to fix and add capacity to the nation's water systems.

"It's something that concerns me, because we pay so much attention to things we see and this is something we don't see -- until it's too late," Maryland State Treasurer Nancy Kopp told Reuters in a recent interview.

"In Maryland and other eastern states there have been repeated episodes in which pipes carrying clean water or sewage have collapsed," Kopp said. "Over the next 20 or 30 years, water systems are likely to hit obsolescence."

CONSERVE OR BUILD?

In Western states where epic water projects from the mid-1900s helped propel growth, many policymakers were likewise underwhelmed by stimulus spending for water works.

California, the most populous state, is receiving less than $1 billion for water projects and the money will not fund the kind of engineering feats that cross hundreds of miles to sustain coastal population centers with water from distant mountains and a handful of rivers, which water-issues researcher Peter Gleick applauds.

Instead of helping to build a new batch of monumental water works, California should focus on making use of its water more efficiently, Gleick, of the Pacific Institute of Oakland, California, said during the Infrastructure Summit.

"About 30 percent of the water used in urban California could be saved with existing technology," Gleick said.

Paying households to adopt the technology would also help avoid the economic and environmental costs of building traditional and pricey water projects such as dams.

"In a sense, a million low-flow toilets is the same as building a dam, but faster and quicker," Gleick said.

But if the federal stimulus effort was meant to spur job growth, it flubbed it in giving water such a small slice of its pie, Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing said during the Summit.

"Water systems have the biggest bang for the buck," said Paul, noting his group recently commissioned a study that found water projects topped infrastructure categories in terms of job creation with 19,769 jobs created from every $1 billion spent.

(Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)

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