Cheryl Norton: Investment in water systems key for nation's health, prosperity

Cheryl Norton is president of Kentucky American Water.
Cheryl Norton is president of Kentucky American Water.

Water issues have been a frequent topic in the news lately, from large main breaks like the one that affected the University of California-Los Angeles' historic Pauley Pavilion to the algae bloom in Toledo's source water.

Closer to home, this paper featured a front-page article about the fact that more than 90,000 households in Kentucky do not have access to "city water."

Stories about water-system issues come and go from the news headlines, but the challenges they represent are a constant point of discussion for those of us in the water industry, and they are worthy of greater focus for a broader audience. After all, quality water systems are essential for a community's good health, fire protection and economic vitality.

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated our nation's overall drinking-water system infrastructure a "D," and the Environmental Protection Agency projected $380 billion was required to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years.

How did we get in this situation? Much of the water infrastructure was installed in the mid- to late-1800s. Lexington's water system, for example, was established by three businessmen in 1882 and started operation as an investor-owned utility in 1885. As cities grew, more water pipes and related facilities — such as pump stations, treatment plants and water tanks — were added. All came at a cost, either from ratepayers or through loan or grant programs.

Kentucky American Water, for example, invests approximately $20 million annually for system renewal, and is in better shape than most systems. But not all systems have done so, and even those that have tried often get pushback from elected leaders, customers and others who simply don't want to pay more.

It's understandable that no one desires to see costs for anything go up, but if we want to continue enjoying the benefit of quality water systems, we must find new ways to make the necessary investments to meet modern needs, comply with stricter regulations and prepare for the future.

This is especially true for smaller systems, most challenged economically because of low tax-revenue streams in their communities and small customer bases over which to spread infrastructure costs.

Broken water pipes, leaking systems, failing water treatment plants and outdated technology are just a few of the challenges many water utilities face. For consumers, these translate into interruptions of service; potential damage to homes, streets and businesses; wasted water resources; and less-than-acceptable water quality.

And this doesn't even cover the need some systems have to expand their service territories to meet the needs of those who currently don't enjoy tap-water service.

Here in Kentucky, we were encouraged when Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, filed legislation during the 2014 session related to providing more options for communities struggling with their water systems. The bill was a start in raising the water-infrastructure issue to a new level of dialogue among state leaders. In other areas of the state and country, discussions are taking place regarding the role that public/private partnerships can have in addressing this important challenge.

American Water is playing an active role in those discussions, and we invite others to join the conversation. Take time to learn what it takes to draw water from a natural source, transform it into quality drinking water and deliver it directly to the tap.

Strong, viable water systems are necessary for economic development, and investment in infrastructure brings jobs to communities. Convenient, quality tap water was one of our nation's greatest accomplishments during the past 125 years.

We need industry and community leaders engaged in discussions about how we will keep quality water flowing for the next 125 years, and beyond.