Guest Column | November 21, 2017

Black & Veatch Prez Imagines A Day Without Water

By Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of Black & Veatch’s water business


Can you fathom a day without water?

It’s like oxygen in that it’s so essential we literally can’t do without. Water reliably streams into our lives each day — from the moment we turn on the faucet for brushing teeth, a shower, or a cup of coffee.

Without it, crops would wither, businesses would close, and manufacturing would be significantly inhibited.

Few may consider that the amount of water on Earth hasn’t changed since dinosaurs roamed millions of years ago, meaning what we have now is all we’ll ever have. And truly appreciating it transcends mere conservation.

It’s about infrastructure, as seen when hundreds of businesses, conservation groups, and others in the water space paused Oct. 12 for a third “Imagine a Day Without Water.” As our nation’s water-delivery systems — some pre-dating World War I — grow ever more frail and concerns about water’s sustainability in the U.S. escalate amid rising demands, changing climates, and natural disasters, addressing the issue demands billions of dollars in modernizing treatment plants, water mains, collection systems, pump stations, and storm sewers.

While 70 percent of the planet is covered by water, all but about 3 percent is in the oceans, where it’s undrinkable in its natural state because of its salinity. And everything relies on water, in numbing amounts. In the U.S., some 42 billion gallons a day is culled from groundwater aquifers, rivers, lakes, streams, reservoirs, and oceans for everything from drinking to cooking and bathing, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) notes.

There’s no underestimating its impact: A single day’s disruption of water supply nationwide would put $43.5 billion of economic activity at risk, a recent study commissioned by the Value of Water Campaign found.

Few, if any, sectors would be spared. The U.S. EPA says crafting just one ton of steel requires more than 62,000 gallons. A dairy cow requires four gallons of water for every gallon of milk produced, while a glass of wine takes about 30 gallons. The 200 gallons that goes into making a smartphone includes everything from the mining for its materials to the making of microchips and polishing of the glass screens. Across the country, hotels use a combined 182 million gallons each day for laundry, food service, and guest use.

The fact is that water can help to propel a local or regional economy, or it can impede the realization of a community’s full potential. And from the nation’s tiny towns to its metropolises, water infrastructures have turned increasingly worrisome, chiefly because of age.

By the ASCE’s account, many of the one million miles of water pipes lining the country’s landscape were laid in the early to mid-1900s with an expected lifespan of 75 to 100 years. That system and the nation’s wastewater infrastructure — including more than 800,000 miles of public sewers and 500,000 miles of lines linking private property to public sewer lines — both garnered D grades from the ASCE in its 2017 “Infrastructure Report Card.” Utilities, that association notes, are averaging a pipe-replacement rate of just 0.5 percent a year, meaning it will take two centuries to replace the system — nearly double the useful life of pipes.

All the while, buried pipes are turning more unreliable. An estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year nationwide waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. The ASCE estimates that 14 to 18 percent of clean drinking water lost daily to leaking pipes could support 15 million households.

While calling the nation’s infrastructure challenges “significant but solvable,” the ASCE says delaying investment “only escalates the costs and risks of an aging infrastructure system — an option the country, the economy and families can no longer afford.” Such modernization requires water providers, governments, and other stakeholders to increasingly answer the call for more smart infrastructures that include sensors and data analytics to optimize system performance, predictability, and reliability.

That’s as millions around the globe simply try to imagine a day WITH water. Some 844 million people on Earth are living without access to safe water, submits. And a recently-released United Nations report shows the global number of people hungry last year — 815 million people last year, or 11 percent of the world’s populace — is up for the first time in more than a decade.  Those rising ranks of the malnourished largely were attributed to a proliferation in violent conflicts and climate shocks such as severe drought and floods that have led to mass displacements.

Back in the U.S., industry leaders are conveying water’s true value for human health and economic development. The rising challenge is how to engage all stakeholders about investment needs and the risks of no investment when skeptical customers want their utilities to do more with less.

Yet as an ever-aging infrastructure grows more frail, it’s a time for engagement of neighbors, elected officials, and business leaders about doing what’s necessary to ensure a plentiful, safe, and future-proof supply of water — that common thread to all things we love and do.

Cindy Wallis-Lage is President of Black & Veatch’s water business, leading the company’s efforts to address billions of dollars in water infrastructure needs around the world. Wallis-Lage joined the company in 1986 and has provided technical and management leadership expertise to more than 100 projects around the globe. Wallis-Lage joined the Black & Veatch Board of Directors in 2012 and is currently on the Board of Directors for the WateReuse Association and for the U.S. Water Alliance. She is based in Kansas City, MO.

Image credit: "Drinking Fountains - 206.365," Gregg Stokes, 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: