We have all experienced the frustration of bone-rattling potholes or traffic back-ups from road repairs on a hot summer day.
Now keep those potholes and traffic jams in mind, but picture a separate, hidden infrastructure system that is larger and, in some cases, a hundred years older than those roads and bridges. You can’t see it, but it ensures we are able to go about our daily routines without a second thought.
These are our water and wastewater systems – underground, out of sight and out of mind.
But they work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to bring clean, safe water to us and take it away after we use it to be treated before it is safely released back into the environment.
Unlike the potholed roads you see on your daily commute, these systems don’t show their age as easily. But a broken water system is absolutely devastating.
What happens when these systems fail to keep up with our needs? Imagine a day without water.
You would not be able to give your dog a bowl of water or make your coffee. Forget about brushing your teeth, flushing the toilet or taking a shower. And that is just residential use.
Commercial and institutional enterprises, from hospitals to schools, factories to the state Capitol, power plants to breweries, need water, too.
Too many communities across America have already experienced how terrible life is without safe, reliable water service.
Of course the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan comes to mind, as well as other communities facing broken infrastructure that taints water supplies and leaves residents fearful.
Beachgoers along the Great Lakes are accustomed to seeing beach closure signs because untreated sewage overflows make water unsafe for swimming.
And communities experiencing epic drought in the Central Valley of California have relocated residents because their wells have run dry. These communities know that a day without water is a crisis.
It’s why we at Capital Region Water are taking part in a nationwide educational effort called “Imagine a Day Without Water.”
Hundreds of organizations across the country, including water agencies, mayors, engineers, contractors, business and labor leaders, schools, and other community organizations are joining forces to raise public awareness and spark action to solve water and wastewater problems today, before they become a crisis tomorrow.
And while water falls from the sky and flows through our rivers, it is far from free. Processing it, treating it, bringing it to and from your house costs Capital Region Water over $50 million a year.
Here in Harrisburg, we face many of the same challenges cities across the country are facing.
The median age of our water and sewer pipes is over 70 years, meaning half of our 380 miles of underground pipes are over 70 years old.
These aging pipes are more prone to failure, which some of our customers have experienced first-hand by being notified that their water needed to be boiled before drinking and by others who have experienced sinkholes related to broken underground infrastructure.
In fact, just last month a 132-year-old water main broke under Cameron Street causing multiple buildings to lose access to clean water and numerous commuters to lose time on their way home during rush hour.
The good news is that if we make adjustments before the most expensive repairs, like not deferring maintenance until a water main breaks, we can be ahead of the curve.
By upgrading our pipes investing in much needed maintenance programs, and deploying new technologies that spot weaknesses before they turn into breaks, we can save money in the long run, prevent disruptions to daily life, and protect the health of our citizens and economy.
To ensure the necessary work is accomplished, community leaders, elected officials, business owners, workers, and more are needed to pay attention and communicate the importance of a functional water system.
Without strong voices advocating for this work, our water systems will continue to be out of sight and out of mind.
We have to keep up the pressure to address issues with our water and wastewater systems today so Harrisburg can imagine a day without water, but we never have to live through it.
Shannon Williams is the CEO of Capital Region Water. She writes from Harrisburg.
This article orginally featured in Penn Live.