Unfortunately, You Can’t Get Your Water over WiFi

Unfortunately, You Can’t Get Your Water over WiFi

Posted by Charles Fishman in Water Currents on March 8, 2012

In the last two years, we have spent a huge sum of money on infrastructure — one kind of infrastructure.

Infrastructure — that’s the stuff we know is important but unsexy. The asparagus of investment.

But these infrastructure numbers are anything but unsexy:

In two years, we’ve spent $57.4 billion on this one style of invisible system.

That’s $500 for every household in the U.S. — $21 a month, every month, for two years.

Did you notice?

Did you whine?

Did the $21 keep you from paying the cable TV bill, or slow down your daily Starbucks investment — or force you to give up your Lipitor?

Not hardly.

In 2010 and 2011, Verizon and AT&T — just those two companies — spent $57.4 billion installing and upgrading the high-speed cell phone networks (3G and 4G) we all use every day.*

If anything, our complaint is that they aren’t moving fast enough, they aren’t spending enough, their pipes aren’t big enough — how come this iPhone is so slow?

Two companies. Two years. Two data networks. $60 billion.

That’s why your smart phone bill is $80 a month per person.

What’s your water bill? On average, it’s $34 a month  — for the family. That’s $10 a month per person — 30 cents a day for all those baths and pots of pasta, for all those cups of coffee and toilet flushes.

Last week, there was a big moment in the world of water.

The word “trillion” started being used in connection with the word “water.”

A big study was released describing the attention our water infrastructure needs in the next 25 years — and the headline number was that we need to spend $1 trillion on the pipes that bring us drinking water.

Now, $1 trillion is serious money. That’s more than the total Defense Department budget — although to be fair, the Pentagon spends $1 trillion in 18 months, and the water pipes need $1 trillion over 300 months.

Still: $1 trillion.

We need to spend that on water pipes, huh?

But here’s the question: What are the water pipes worth?

Do we value our water service as much as, for instance, our electricity? our cable TV? our cell phone service?

One of my favorite, little-known tidbits from the world of water is this. In Washington, DC, there is a major drinking water main that supplies K Street, and then runs on up to Capitol Hill.

That water main — which supplies water to the flossy, high-powered lobbying firms — was installed between 1858 and 1860. The lobbyists are drinking water from a pipe that was laid before Lincoln was inaugurated.

What if they were sweet-talking Senators over a phone system that was installed before Lincoln was inaugurated? Oh, wait. The telephone wasn’t invented until 1876.

When will it be a good idea to replace that 150-year-old water main, in the nation’s capital? When will we have the money to do that?

And, perhaps more to the point, if you could cut a slice of that pipe, set it on the kitchen counter, and look at it, would you be happy drinking water from it?

Well, that’s the whole point of last week’s report about water pipes — although the report itself is a little drier. It is the work of a quiet but invaluable organization called the American Water Works Association — the group that represents all of America’s water utilities.

With a classic bit of water-geek humor, the report is called, “Buried No Longer.” Bring those water pipes into view! We can’t hide the work they need!

And “Buried No Longer” — which clearly represents an incredible investment of effort and money — is a painstaking accounting of our water mains. What kinds of pipes does each region have? When were they installed? It’s all there — including 21 pages of charts at the end. Water folks love a good chart.

It is filled with amazing facts.

How many miles of drinking water mains have we got? In the U.S., 1 million miles. That’s 20 times the length of all our interstate highways.

How much is all that pipe worth, in the ground? $2.1 trillion. Each American can lay claim to $6,774 worth of water pipe.

What does it cost to lay new water main? $2 million per mile.

Over and over again, the report returns to the fact that we need to spend $1 trillion. The report divides the money up by region, by family. It warns that in some places, monthly water bills could triple. It even answers the question: What will happen if we don’t spend the $1 trillion. (No surprise: All plumbing problems get more expensive if you ignore them, even $1 trillion plumbing problems.)

But the math is not that hard.

First, the $1 trillion is a little misleading — it includes replacing water mains that are wearing out (pipes, the report says, “last a long time, but they are not immortal”) and adding new water mains to serve growing communities.

Extending water networks can, and often is, paid for by the people getting that new water service — homes and businesses pay connection fees to cover those.

The mains that need to be replaced come to half that $1 trillion — $525 billion. Over 25 years, that’s $21 billion a year. With 114 million households in the U.S. today, that’s about $15 for each family, each month.

Which would mean that the average water bill would go from $34 to $49 a month — still less than the cost of a single smart phone plan.

Seems like a very reasonable investment. After all, you can’t get your water over WiFi.