By Larry L. Bingaman

September 14, 2016

Most of us take water, and the systems that bring it to our homes and businesses in the region, for granted. We turn on the tap and safe drinking water reliably comes out. But can you imagine a day without it?

While unimaginable for many of us in Connecticut, there are communities across the U.S. that have lived without the essential systems that bring water to their homes and businesses. Drought, flooding, infrastructure failure, poor water quality and climate change are stressing our nation’s water systems.

Different regions face different water challenges, so the solutions to strengthen drinking water systems must be locally driven. But, reinvestment in drinking water infrastructure must be a national priority.

At the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, we are taking part in a nationwide educational effort on Sept. 15 organized by the Value of Water Coalition — “Imagine a Day Without Water” — to raise public awareness about the need for reinvestment in drinking water infrastructure and resources.

With the delivery of a life-sustaining product and service, our purpose at the RWA is noble. We provide public water service to more than 118,000 homes and businesses, or a population of about 430,000 in Greater New Haven. We operate and maintain more than 1,700 miles of pipe, four treatment plants, 27,000 acres of watershed land, 10 lakes, three aquifers and other critical components such as hydrants, pumps, valves and storage tanks that deliver safe drinking water to our customers’ taps and support fire and emergency services.

The health and prosperity of Greater New Haven is largely dependent upon a buried network of water pipes that we never see and many customers take largely for granted. At the RWA, we address the issue of aging infrastructure each year by preparing a projection of improvements, additions and renovations to the water system for projects that are required to provide for present and future water supply requirements, the protection of the existing water supply, and to meet the water quality standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act. We invest approximately $25 to $27 million annually in infrastructure improvements.

One of the most visible challenges associated with aging infrastructure are water main breaks; there is one every two minutes somewhere in America. The RWA’s main break rate is well below the reported rates in the U.S. and Canada. Our water main breakage rate is approximately four breaks per 100 miles of installed main per year. The industry urges water utilities to strive for an annual break rate of 20 breaks per 100 miles of installed main. We attribute our low break rate to our proactive water main renewal practices, including replacement of water mains that experience three breaks within 1,000 linear feet, our continuing pipe rehabilitation program and our strict installation practices.

Like the majority of American communities, the RWA uses bonds to finance local infrastructure improvements. All of us who pay for water service absorb the cost of this investment primarily through higher water rates since these improvements are the primary driver for rate increases. The federal government, however, can play an important role in helping communities like those in the New Haven region manage these costs.

Although the RWA’s operating efficiency, planning and effective use of capital dollars through our Capital Improvement Program will keep rate increases as low as possible, we need more help from Congress and more legislation that lowers the cost of borrowing for infrastructure projects. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, and The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provide low-interest loans and grants to help community water systems upgrade infrastructure to remain in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. We need to encourage our U.S. congressional representatives to stand behind more of this much-needed legislation because it will directly benefit customers.

These programs not only help to hold down the cost of water projects, thereby mitigating increases in customer water bills to pay for the financing, but they help to boost the local economy, bolster America’s workforce and sharpen our nation’s competitive edge. According to the Department of Commerce, every job created in the water workforce adds 3.68 jobs nationally. A recent economic study estimates that $1 of water and sewer infrastructure investment increases Gross Domestic Product in the long term by approximately $6.35.

Let’s face it, America’s economy runs on water. Investing in our drinking-water systems secures a bright and prosperous future for generations to come. Public officials and business leaders at the local, state and national levels must prioritize investment in water, while public-private partnerships must work to shape the drinking-water systems of tomorrow. Innovation is driving today’s water sector and will allow us to build modern, energy efficient and environmentally advanced systems that will sustain communities for generations to come.

When we consider everything our water services deliver — protecting public health and the environment, providing fire protection, supporting our economy and assuring the high quality of life we enjoy here in southern Connecticut — it’s clear water is too essential to ignore. It’s vital that each of us encourage our local public officials to be leaders on this cause, and support them in making decisions necessary to address the issue. It’s time to focus on conscious business solutions so no community in America has to imagine living a day without water.

Larry Bingaman is president and chief executive officer of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.

This article was originally featured in the New Haven Register