A few days ago, a massive water main break just outside the Washington, DC city limits released 60 million gallons of water in a 30-foot geyser over the Maryland suburbs. This amounts to around one-eighth the average amount of water withdrawn each day from the Potomac River to provide drinking water to the entire metropolitan region.
The pipe break and the geyser, coming just hours before we mark World Water Day, are dramatic reminders that we must invest more in our water supply infrastructure. And that does not just mean replacing the pipe itself, important as that is right now. Investing in nature as “green infrastructure” will also need to be part of the long-term solution.
The immediate result of the water main break was mandatory water restrictions affecting nearly 1.8 million people across Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties – shorter showers, fewer loads of laundry, flushing less frequently and so on. These are minor inconveniences and they may well be forgotten in a week or so once the local utility, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, completes its repairs. But that would be a mistake and a missed opportunity.
The water main break should encourage us to focus on the ongoing and intertwined challenges of infrastructure, water demand and population growth. Staff analysts at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin – a non-regulatory body created by Congress in 1940 with representatives of the five watershed jurisdictions and Federal government – looked closely at these issues in a 2010 study. They concluded that by the year 2040, the region’s current water supply system may have difficulty meeting demand during periods of drought without water use restrictions, the development of additional supply capabilities, or both. Combine the growing population with the warmer temperatures the region can expect as a result of climate change, along with the potential for longer and more frequent periods of drought, and the current system could fall short.
Fortunately, the region’s water supply utilities are committed to conducting regular forecasts of future demands and resources, and working together to make any necessary changes to avoid future water supply crises. Options they have considered to increase water availability during droughts include the use of estuarine freshwater as a supply alternative, and the development of new storage capacity in retired quarries.
The nationwide price tag for restoring and expanding our aging underground water supply infrastructure – our buried pipes alone – will exceed one trillion dollars over a 25-year time period, according to a 2012 study by the American Water Works Association. This does not include the cost of needed investments in drinking water treatment plants – nor does it include the cost of dealing with our society’s wastewater and stormwater pollution .
The Potomac River basin would do well to heed the lessons learned elsewhere. For over a century, New York City has invested in conservation of the Catskills, recognizing that setting aside land, managing development, working with farmers and other landowners to reduce pollution is a smart investment, and offers long-term benefits in securing the city’s water supply. More recently, cities across Latin America like Quito, Bogotá and São Paolo have recognized that conserving upstream forests will ensure clean, abundant water supplies and make both ecological and economic sense. Even for jurisdictions that have already invested in drinking water treatment plants, watershed protection provides an additional layer of public and ecosystem health protection through pollution prevention.
The land use decisions people living near the Potomac River make today – across towns, cities and states – will directly affect the quality and quantity of water available to them, their children and their grandchildren. How and where development spreads across the Potomac watershed will influence water supplies and the health of the river and Chesapeake Bay. The addition of more houses, strip malls and parking lots to serve the estimated one million people expected to move in to the Washington metro region between now and 2040 will increase runoff, contributing to localized flooding and increased pollution of the Bay as well as rivers and streams.
There will be substantial investments needed to sustain and improve the region’s water supply and treatment systems. But let’s not miss the opportunity to place a full value on the services provided by forests, wetlands, rivers and streams in protecting the quality and quantity of our water supply. As we look at the societal price tag of repairing the next water main break, or building additional water storage reservoirs, we should also look at how investing in nature will help clean and secure our drinking water and also provide other returns, from air quality to wildlife habitat to recreational amenities.
We often take for granted the abundant, affordable water supply upon which our economy and quality of life depends. Turn on the tap and the water will come. Let’s be fully aware that the water we count on depends on both built and natural infrastructure and that both need sustained investment in order to keep them functioning and working for us.