What is safe and clean water worth? This may seem to be a simple question, and one that may not appear to be worth a second thought. However, given the recent discovery that the two cross-harbor sewer pipes from Marblehead to the South Essex Wastewater Treatment Facility in Salem are in immediate need of a costly replacement, now is a good time to stop and think about water and how essential it is to our quality of life.
Indispensable to jobs, the economy, our health and our communities, water runs through our lives in many ways, but often, it is taken for granted. In recent years, the public has become much more focused on environmental protection, including sustainability and reuse of key resources. Water isn’t always included in that debate, at least not to the extent that it should be. Unreliable access to clean water and water services, water shortages and failing infrastructure systems are very real problems that we must work together on to address.
Water is a finite resource and must be managed well. All of us play a role in that process, because we all consume water and create waste. The average American uses between 100 and 175 gallons of water a day. Every drop that enters and ultimately leaves your home or business is treated and discharged back into the water cycle with a significant portion of the water in this country going to facilities such as the South Essex facility.
Americans have access to safe and clean water and sanitation services. Others around the world aren’t so fortunate. Here getting clean water or flushing the toilet is as simple as turning a knob or pushing a handle. The unseen hero of this story is the vast infrastructure — 800,000 miles of water pipes and 600,000 miles of sewer lines — that transports water for treatment and delivery. In addition, there are more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. that treat wastewater for its safe return to the environment. As a result of this infrastructure, we have all but eliminated fatal diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis, diseases that routinely killed thousands of Americans every year before the advent of the modern water system.
Much of this water infrastructure was built nearly a century ago for a smaller population. It is aging and overburdened. Even with newer facilities and innovative alternatives, upgrades are required to keep pace with growing needs and environmental challenges. The level of investment by governments in maintaining water infrastructure has declined dramatically. In addition, sewer and water rates are not always reflective of the true cost of service. These systems need our attention. Delaying work to rehabilitate and expand infrastructure will only increase future costs.
We must all work together to keep our water clean and healthy. To do this, we all must learn to value water and the infrastructure associated with it. Consider the fact that the majority of Americans pay more for their cellphone service or their cable service than they do for their water and wastewater services.
There are many water-quality professionals that proudly work to provide clean and safe water to our communities. They are constantly seeking innovative solutions to community and water system challenges, undertaking efforts such as reclaiming water for reuse and generating energy from wastewater, which allow all of us to adapt to our changing environment and be good caretakers of our water resources. These water-quality professionals have dedicated their careers to providing clean and safe water to protect everyone’s health, planet, quality of life and the economy, but they can’t do it alone. Everyone uses water, and everyone is responsible for it. We all have something at stake when it comes to water. We need to invest in protecting our natural resources, public health and economic viability through our water infrastructure. Reinvestment in water infrastructure is an important step in ensuring our communities will continue to have access to the clean and safe water they need now and into the future.
Matthew Formica, P.E., is a Salem resident and vice president of the New England Water Environment Association.