By George Hawkins, General Manager, DC Water

May 22, 2015

If you live in New York, chances are that you or someone you know was affected by our broken and aging water infrastructure last winter. I live in Amsterdam and represent the Capital Region in the House of Representatives, and during our extended cold weather season I heard countless stories of pipes bursting in Colonie, power outages in Troy, and public service interruptions in Albany – all due to a decades-long habit on a national level of disinvestment and complacency when it comes to maintaining, developing, and improving the way we utilize one of our most important yet basic commodities: water.

According to the Value of Water Coalition, the average American uses 64,240 gallons of water in one year. That’s 176 gallons per day. Whether it’s the water we drink directly from our tap, the 19 gallons it takes to grow a single apple, or the 1,230 gallons it takes to produce a steak, we depend – or have depended – on water for everything we use or do at any given second on any given day. In fact, 46 percent of water consumed in America is used to help manufacture the products we buy.

Our nation runs on water and we have to get smarter about the way we deliver it to our farms, businesses, homes and public service institutions.

The inefficiencies in our water infrastructure aren’t just a problem in my congressional district or in Syracuse. This is an issue that affects every American in every corner of our nation. I regularly speak about this issue with my colleagues in Congress who represent areas that millions of Americans call home and our needs are urgent: from technical assistance to funding gaps and even to pipes made out of substandard materials like wood.

You read that right. In 2015, major cities in the most advanced nation with the largest economy in the world provide drinking water to their homes and businesses through pipes made out of wood. It is appalling and frustrating, but we can do something about it.

We should start with robust and responsible funding from the federal government, increased technical support through creative partnerships, and a sharper focus on energy efficiency.

We must help our communities solve the problems they have today before they become disasters tomorrow.

First, we must invest in infrastructure. We talk every day about our crumbling roads and bridges – the American Society for Civil Engineers recently graded our infrastructure with a D-minus – but our needs go far beyond the surfaces on which we drive our cars and trains. By no means should we try to solve our problems by simply throwing money at them, but those who think the quickest way to prosperity is to suffocate investment and innovation need to understand that we save more taxpayer dollars down the road when we’re smart enough to invest today.

Because it’s not just water spilling out of those broken pipes – it’s dollars and cents.

That’s money that could be better put to use toward education, job training or any other challenge we face. Whether it’s financial support in the way of direct grants or revolving loan funds, these expenses represent a down payment on the future success of our communities.

Second, many of our local utilities are in immediate need of the kind of technical assistance it takes to maintain facilities, prevent problems and certify plans that win state and federal grants. Our smaller water systems are typically the ones most in need – with only one or two engineers on hand, often nearing retirement. That’s the bad news. The good news is that New York’s phenomenal engineering schools have a healthy supply of students that are in need of the practical experience it takes to find a job after graduation.

We have an opportunity here to fashion new partnerships that provide technical know-how for short-staffed water systems while delivering experience to our future engineers. It’s time to get creative in the ways we train our workers and fill available specialized jobs.

Finally, as we work to provide the necessary funding and employ qualified engineers, we must be smart in the way we expend energy at these facilities. Through proper training of staff as well as integration of renewable energies like combined heat and power, solar panels or wind turbines, we will save money and reduce the amount of energy our public sector uses at the local level.

These are the types of plans we must put into action if we are to solve our problems related to water infrastructure. New York is already a leader in so many arenas, and we can make that list even longer by focusing on this issue.

We can accomplish so much more when we’re not simply mopping up a mess, but rather working to ensure there isn’t a spill in the first place. It just takes forward thinking and the understanding that we must help our communities solve the problems they have today before they become disasters tomorrow.