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Philadelphia Inquirer: Imagine a Day Without Water

By Howard Neukrug and Edward G. Rendell


If you read something about Philadelphia's infrastructure falling apart, you probably picture potholes in the road and rusted-out bridges that need to be replaced. But that is just the infrastructure you can easily see every day. There is a whole universe of it under our feet that, in many places, is much older than the roads we drive on.

Underground is a massive network of water systems that work 24/7/365 to bring clean, safe drinking water to us and to take it away to be treated. In Philadelphia, there are more than 6,200 miles of drinking water mains and sewer pipes that could stretch from here to California and back. Across the country, there are more than a million miles of underground water pipes, many of them dating back a century or more.

If our water system failed, Philadelphia would wake up to a very unpleasant morning. Imagine a day without water. You couldn't brush your teeth, flush the toilet, or take a shower. You couldn't give your dog a bowl of water or make your coffee. And that is just residential use. Commercial use is a huge component of water consumption. Breweries, restaurants, hospitals, and hotels all need water. Manufacturers, firefighters, and the groundskeepers at Lincoln Financial Field all rely on water. Water keeps our economy flowing.

Building America's Future and Philadelphia Water are part of a nationwide educational effort called Imagine a Day Without Water, organized by the Value of Water Coalition. Nearly a hundred other water agencies, mayors, city councils, engineers, contractors, business leaders, aquariums, schools, and more are joining the effort. They know that even though water is absolutely essential to everything we do, it too often is forgotten.

But it needs to be on all our minds. Our system in Philadelphia is probably older than you realize. We have some treatment facilities and pipes that date to the 1800s. And while Philadelphia Water does a good job of bringing safe, reliable, affordable water to customers, people in the region should know that even though the infrastructure is invisible to us, it very much exists and is important. Water might fall from the sky and flow through our rivers, but it is far from free.

Philadelphia Water budgeted $767 million in 2016 to process, treat, and bring water to and from homes and businesses. No matter how much or how little water we use, that price is only going to increase because of the age of our system.

Over the last five years, Philadelphia has experienced an average of 823 water main breaks each year - not an unusual number for a city of our size and age. But the damage that breaks cause and the disruption to our customers - the absence of water for even a short period of time - are an unwelcome reminder that all is not well with the system. Over the next decade, Philadelphia Water will be looking to invest in increasing upgrades so that our breakage rate steadily declines. We'll need all citizens to support us in this effort.

The good news is that with the support of citizens and elected officials, we can be ahead of the curve. We cannot ask Philadelphia ratepayers to shoulder that cost alone. We need the help of Congress and our federal partners to bring much-needed funding to the city to protect and restore critical water infrastructure.

Deferred maintenance - waiting until a main breaks or a system breaks down - results in the most expensive repairs possible. But if we continually maintain the system, if we upgrade pipes, if we implement smarter technology that spots weaknesses in the system before they turn into breaks, we can save money in the long run. And if we keep doing a good job, this city will never have to imagine a day without water.

Howard Neukrug is the Philadelphia water commissioner.

Edward G. Rendell is a former Philadelphia mayor, former governor of Pennsylvania, and cochair of Building America's Future.