Bringing solutions to the U.S. water crisis

Bringing solutions to the U.S. water crisis

Reading time: 4 minutes
January 31, 2022

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With US President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan expected to fall well short of addressing the crisis facing America’s ailing water infrastructure, communities in the US will increasingly look to private enterprise to step in.

Localised solutions are called for to raise minimum standards for households and meet demands from businesses to help stimulate the economy.

As populations grow and the effects of water scarcity becomes more apparent, countries around the world will rely on innovation to stretch water supplies further, with schemes deployed on the driest part of the world – Australia – being watched closely for the benefits they bring.

  • Twenty-four per cent of water systems in the US are considered non-compliant by the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Two trillion gallons of water every year is wasted because of leaking pipes and breaking mains, the EPA has reported.
  • More than $US2 trillion is needed in addition to the water industry’s current capital plan; the Biden infrastructure plan is providing funding for a very small proportion of this.
  • Large portions of US water and wastewater systems were built over a century ago with many pipes, plants and pumps reaching the end of their expected lifespan.
  • Capital spending currently falls well short of capital needed to upgrade this infrastructure.

Increasingly, examples of water scarcity and water contamination are bubbling up to the surface in the US.

  • A large majority of homes don’t have access to municipal sewage
  • In the US, 900bn gallons of waste water is being discharged into the natural environment every year without some kind of treatment, according to the EPA.
  • Contaminated water in US town of Flint, Michigan in the United States, was recently found to caused health issues over many years
  • Despite the level of the public scandal and awareness, there are some 6000 water systems in the US with lead levels twice the amount of levels found in Flint, analysis on EPA data has showed. 

While the majority of people living in the United States have access to high-quality drinking water and waste-water services, more than two million do not have access to adequate drinking water and sanitation, the American Society of Civil Engineers has highlighted.

President Biden’s infrastructure plan has earmarked some funding for grants and low-interest loans, to go to state, local and tribal governments to upgrade aging water systems with additional spending to address contaminated drinking-water supplies.

Water scarcity – a global problem 

Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, according to the United Nations. Currently more than 18 per cent of the world's population lives in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.

The Australian experience

Already the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia has become a testing ground for solutions to water scarcity.

Some of the main options available to improve water supply and security prevalent in Australia include:

  1. New storage
    No major public dams have been built in Australia for 30 years. In 2019, the New South Wales Government announced A$1.1 billion funding to build and upgrade dams.

  2. Desalination
    Major city desalination plants were built between 2007 and 2012 in response to the Millennium Drought.
    At the height of the drought in 2019, state governments ordered the operation of these desalination plants to be ramped up. The NSW Government was working on expansion of the Sydney Desalination Plant during 2019 but following the heavy rain in February 2020 the plan was put on hold. Desalination is an expensive form of water recycling due to its energy intensity. It generally operates as a peak resource.

  3. Wastewater recycling
    This includes sewer mining, stormwater harvesting and wastewater treatment. It operates as a base load resource and can be an effective substitute for potable water for non-drinking purposes e.g., gardening, toilet flushing, washing machines, ‘greening’ cities to improve liveability.

  4. Potable reuse
    Very highly treated, purified water is blended with clean water for drinking purposes.

    For indirect potable reuse, treated wastewater is injected into water bodies, called an environmental buffer, such as rivers, reservoirs and aquifers before the water is treated at a drinking water treatment plant.

    For direct potable reuse, treated wastewater is either blended with raw water immediately upstream of the water treatment plant or drinking water downstream without an environmental buffer. Potable reuse has been adopted in many cities globally, including two small schemes in Perth, and has been shown to be a reliable, hygienic and safe source of drinking water.
    All of the issues discussed above, if they are to be effectively addressed, will require significant investment in the necessary infrastructure.

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