10 facts about water policy and infrastructure in the US

From the water safety crisis in Flint, Michigan to the near-disaster with the Oroville Dam in California, a string of water-related events have made headlines, and called into question the U.S. focus on keeping critical water systems safe and functioning.

In advance of the U.S.-focused Water Week and the U.N. World Water Day, Brookings experts have explored many dimensions of water infrastructure. 10 facts derived from their research are highlighted below.

1. Water plays a critical role in the economy

As Metropolitan Policy Program experts Lynn E. Broaddus and Joseph Kane put it, “water means business.” 30 of the country’s largest water utilities support up to $52 billion in economic output and 289,000 jobs annually, and millions of households, businesses, and industries depend on water systems every day. Investing in water infrastructure ensures that these industries stay afloat, and more investment often means more jobs, say Broaddus and Kane.

2. The federal government only accounts for a small share of total public spending on water infrastructure

Despite the economic importance of water and calls for increased infrastructure investment from the Trump administration, the federal government actually plays a small role relative to states and localities, which are responsible for almost 96 percent of public spending on drinking water and wastewater facilities nationally each year. According to Kane and Broaddus, this means that regional actors, including water utilities, are shouldering a greater financial burden and must target resources more efficiently and equitably.

3. Geographic and political boundaries can pose challenges to water investment

It can be difficult, however, to coordinate regional action. Kane points out that there are nearly 52,000 community water systems in the U.S., and these frequently cross geographic and political boundaries and touch multiple watersheds and users. This can lead to both operational inefficiencies and difficulties accelerating future investment.

4. The cost of water is on the rise in many cities

To cover the cost of needed upgrades and other repairs, utilities are charging users more for services. According to Kane and Broaddus, water rates are increasing in many cities across the U.S., with some estimates showing that the average monthly residential bill has gone up by 48 percent since 2010. And, relative to other expenses, households have seen the price of water and sewer services soar over the past two decades.

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5. There’s a mismatch between water investment demand and institutional capacity

Facing a backlog of repairs, many utilities are struggling to modernize existing facilities. Kane explains that while more than 88 percent of Americans believe some type of action is needed to solve the country’s water infrastructure challenges, only about 17 percent of utilities are confident that they can just cover the cost of existing service through rates and fees—let alone pursue needed upgrades.

6. Only a handful of drinking water utilities in the largest cities nationally rank highly in water investment

Many drinking water utilities are confronting a wide range of financial and economic hurdles to pursue increased water infrastructure investment. In an analysis of how cities vary across six major gauges of water investment performance – including operational and debt concerns as well as other income and population pressures – Kane identified that only 11 of 97 cities ranked highly across all these categories, including places like Denver and San Antonio. In contrast, large drinking water utilities in cities like Detroit and Cleveland struggled in many of these same categories. However, says Kane, most drinking water utilities—in 55 of the 97 cities analyzed—faced a mixed picture, scoring well in three or four of these six categories.

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7. The private sector owns most of the nation’s dams

Water infrastructure, of course, is not simply limited to drinking water and wastewater facilities, but also includes an extensive number of other assets like dams. According to the National Inventory of Dams, the federal government only owns about 3.7 percent of the nation’s nearly 90,000 dams. Meanwhile, explains Kane, state and local governments own 7.3 percent and 20 percent of all dams, respectively. The private sector, however, is the biggest owner by far (at 64.2 percent), illustrating how dam oversight and investment can vary markedly across the country.

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8. 69 percent of the nation’s dams were built before 1970

Most the nation’s dams, explains Kane, are the product of a building boom in the early-to mid-20th century, and nearing their useful (and safe) life. 62,700 of the country’s 90,000 dams, or 69.3 percent, were built before 1970, and 17.1 percent pose a potentially “high hazard” to the economy, environment, and human life if they were to fail.


9. Climate change and water cycles are closely linked

While water infrastructure investment continues to dominate many policy discussions, it is crucial to not overlook other closely related climate concerns. According to a The Water Problem, a new book edited Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West, climate and water cycles are closely tied, having a major impact across the U.S. From changes in snowpack, precipitation, flooding, to seasonality of runoff and other water-related events, U.S. water systems—and the communities that depend on them—are feeling the strain of climate change. As the book puts it, “Climate is a driver of water-supply conditions … and these changes can lead to a wide range of potential risks that ripple across economic sectors and communities.”

For more on water and climate, watch Pat Mulroy discuss water scarcity in Nevada in the video below, and register to attend or watch an upcoming event about her new book.

10. Despite concerns over water safety and infrastructure, Americans have greater access to clean water than most people around the globe

Despite mounting concerns over water safety and the infrastructure supporting our critical water systems, Pat Mulroy explains that Americans are actually better off than most. “We in this country have no idea how fortunate we are,” she says. “We are a small minority around the world that actually has reliable 24/7 water.”