Guest Column | August 13, 2015

Water: A Valued, Complex, And Critical Commodity

Donna Vincent Roa

By Donna Vincent Roa


I was listening to a web presentation recently on the value of water and heard this statement: "Most Americans don't understand the true value of water." I was intrigued by the simplicity of the statement and bothered that it didn't accurately capture the sentiment, thinking, or collective feelings of a populace, or the fact that it is hard to accurately assess water's true worth.

I think that people, in general, understand and appreciate that water is fundamental to life. We know the consequences to communities and businesses when there is no water, there is too much water, or water is not of the right quality.

The Ultimate Question: What is Value of Water?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put a lot of resources behind trying to answer this question, “what is the value of water?” I was at the project kick-off meeting at American University a few years ago, which featured a who’s who of the water industry talking about this issue. This event also announced the Agency's research effort to quantify the impact of water on the U.S. economy by examining economic and water resource statistics and evaluating economic research on the use and value of water across various sectors and regions.

The resulting report -- “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy” -- which came out a year later reflects the reality that it is a true challenge to identify data that would accurately reflect water’s true value. In essence, we are not able to actually calculate the true value of water.

Beyond Data: We Intrinsically Value Water

While we may lack of ways to fully and accurately quantify the value of water, new water realities (e.g., droughts, water shortages, flooding, water wars) have created a growing interest and heightened awareness of its importance for the health, well-being, recreation, and safety of communities and the economic health and existence of businesses.

Talk to the farmers in California or those residents whose wells have run dry. Talk to those who experienced Superstorm Sandy. Talk to the residents of the town where Naegleria fowleri -- a brain-eating amoeba -- was found in their drinking water or others with extended boil water advisories.

We appreciate the aesthetics, heritage, and recreational uses of water. We are drawn to water. We know what it means to be water rich. We may not fully understand that the current price we pay for drinking water from our taps is far less than what we should be paying to keep our water utilities and the pipes and pumps infrastructure viable. This is an important point we should all consider when we think of water's value.

Water: A Complex and Critical Commodity

If we want to maintain public health and a strong, vibrant economy, we need water. So, we must protect it. We must efficiently and effectively manage it. And at the same time, we need to value the utilities that move, clean and deliver water and make business and life possible.

The real story of water and its value is embedded in our public and private water utilities that consistently perform despite expanding challenges they face. Aging infrastructure (e.g., water pipes over 100 years old and others far past their useful lives) is a term we should all be discussing…in political circles and at the dinner table.

Water is worthy of special consideration.

Donna is Chief of Party for the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) Technical Assistance Facility and is responsible for the overall management, administration and delivery of enterprise acceleration services provided to SWFF innovators.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributed to USAID or the US Government.

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Image credit: "Ballerina," Ian Sane © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: