27 October 2010

ITT "Value of Water" Survey: Will it motivate infrastructure funding?

This morning I was watching a live feed from the CSIS Conference on "Bridging Knowledge Gaps in Water Management" (blog post forthcoming), during which an industry representative mentioned that ITT was releasing a new report on water at the same time. That report (pdf) released today comes from ITT's Value of Water Survey in which 1,003 registered voters and 500 industrial and agricultural businesses across the country were polled on their concerns within a selected set of "external" values. The result, in a nutshell, "reveals that Americans are ready to fix our nation's crumbling water infrastructure."

But the question is not whether the American people and businesses want the infrastructure fixed, but how much we're willing to pay for our government (and their private contractors) actually and finally to make the necessary repairs and upgrades. The American Society of Civil Engineers has been showing us for a decade now the declining state of critical infrastructure in their biannual "Report Card on America's Infrastructure." Their latest results from 2009 gave academic-like grades to the nation's dams (D), drinking water systems (D-), inland waterways (D-), levees (D-), and wastewater systems (D-), among other systems. One wonders, especially viewing the footage gathered by the ASCE, what evidence it would take for a failing grade in an infrastructure sector...

Anyway, ITT's survey details are interesting, because they give us (those in water as an object of vocation and profession...or obsession, if you prefer) not only a sense of the public's awareness of water issues in general, but also a deeper look into the public's valuation of water. According to the official press release accompanying the survey report,
"The survey found that nearly one in four American voters is 'very concerned' about the state of the United States' water infrastructure. In fact, the nation's pipes, treatment and delivery systems -- everything that gets clean water to homes and takes dirty water away -- are crumbling under the combined pressures of population growth, urbanization and chronic underinvestment. Every day in America, 650 water mains break, or one every two minutes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, these breaks and other leaks result in the loss of roughly 1.7 trillion gallons of water every year -- enough to supply water to 68 million Americans.

"'Water is a necessity, but our survey confirms that most people take access to clean tap water for granted,' said Gretchen McClain, president of ITT Corporation's Fluid and Motion Control business. 'Indeed, water is one critical issue missing from the national infrastructure debate. Yet when presented with the facts, Americans recognize a looming crisis and are willing to pay their share to properly maintain the systems that bring clean water into their homes.'

"ITT's survey revealed that 63 percent of all American voters are willing to pay an average of 11 percent more on their water bill each month to help ensure continued access to a reliable and consistent supply of clean water. When applied across all American households, this increase is equal to $5.4 billion -- or four times the FY2009 federal investment in our nation's drinking water systems. In addition, a majority of industrial and agricultural businesses surveyed are willing to pay an average of 7 percent more per month for the water they consume.

"Most survey respondents also said that fixing our insufficient water infrastructure must be a national priority and is a shared responsibility between individuals, business and the government.

"'We all have a role to play, starting with more efficient use and conservation of water,' McClain said. 'Citizens and businesses need to understand that the delivery of clean water comes at a price and we need to value that clean water accordingly. Government can enact environmentally effective, economically sustainable and fair water policies that ensure proper investment in the infrastructure for future generations.'"
The motivation is obvious to many, but bears restatement for clarity:
"The U.S. population has more than doubled since much of the water infrastructure system was first put in place, and in many areas systems struggle to keep up with increasing demand. By one U.S. Geological Survey estimate, the value of lost water from water systems is $2.6 billion annually. Every year, 10 billion gallons of raw sewage are released into waterways as a result of insufficient infrastructure, polluting the water and increasing the cost of treating and cleaning it. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the gap between what is needed to invest and what is actually invested in the nation's water infrastructure is about $19 billion each year."
Note that the investment gap is highlighted here, not the actual or total investment. If some progress were made against that gap, it would diminish progressively to the point of simple maintenance costs and the cost to finance large capital replacement projects, which could be distributed over space and time in order to keep the infrastructure system in overall good repair and working order. It's more a matter of logistics and funding, not need or cost. It's going to cost what it costs, no matter how much more we need it now than we needed it last year or last decade. It's a matter of the political will to collect and appropriate the adequate funding in the right places. As the gap in any individual year is determined, the cumulative spending deficit grows unbounded until we end up with infrastructure more akin to that in the American Colonies, not the United States.

Among the more interesting results highlighted by ITT's survey:
  • 95% of Americans rate water as "extremely important," more than any other service they receive, including heat and electricity.
  • 80% of voters say water infrastructure needs reform; about 40% say "major reform" is necessary.
  • 85% of voters and 83% of businesses agree that federal, state or local governments should invest money in upgrading water pipes and systems.
  • 79% of voters and 75% of industrial and agricultural businesses agree that government officials must spend more time addressing water issues.
Regarding our "willingness to pay" for these services, as mentioned above:
  • 63% of voters are willing to pay as much as 11% more in their water bills per month to upgrade water systems and ensure long-term access to clear water. This translates to an average increase of $6.20 over their current water bills.
  • 57% of industrial and agricultural businesses would be willing to pay more in their monthly water bills for improvement purposes, with an average acceptable increase of 7%.
According to ITT, that willingness to pay more in the average voters' monthly household water bill could generate increased investment in our national water infrastructure to the tune of $5 billion per year. That amount, multiplied by financing plans and revolving funds that are already under consideration in Congress, could go far in cutting the massive investment gap that both ITT and the ASCE have found in their analyses. However, the question from my title for this post remains: will a new survey finally motivate government, from the municipal to the federal levels, to gather and assign funding to these long-overdue infrastructure repairs and upgrades? Will legislators and policy-makers step up to an apparently new level of leadership and responsibility for these needs?

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