A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Can you imagine a day without water? Here’s to hoping you never have to

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By Cheryl Norton
Special to KyForward

If you read something about “our infrastructure falling apart,” you would probably picture potholes in the road and rusted-out bridges that need to be replaced. But that’s just the infrastructure you can easily see every day. There is a whole universe of it under our feet that, in many places, is much older than the roads we drive on.

Underground, out of site and out of mind for many, is a massive network of water systems that work 24/7/365 to bring clean, safe drinking water to us and take away water after it has been used so that it can be treated. According to National Geographic, the U.S. has 1.2 million miles of water mains—that’s 26 miles of water mains for every mile of interstate highway. Many of those pipes were built in the 1800s or early 1900s, and many of those systems were built for cities of a century ago, not modern metropolises.

If those systems failed us one day, Kentuckians would wake up to a very unpleasant morning. Imagine a day without water. You couldn’t brush your teeth, flush the toilet or take a shower. You couldn’t give your dog a bowl of water or make your coffee. And that is just residential use. Commercial use is a huge component of water consumption as well, with everything from breweries and restaurants, to manufacturing plants and hospitals. And remember, firefighters need water, too. Water keeps our economy flowing and helps protect our communities.

We here at Kentucky American Water know that water is essential, and that’s why we are part of a nationwide educational effort called “Imagine a Day Without Water.” Dozens of other water agencies, mayors, engineers, contractors, business leaders, community members, schools and more are joining the effort, because even though water is absolutely essential to everything we do, it too often is forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.

But it needs to be on all of our minds because many systems are probably older than you realize, and continual investment in water infrastructure is needed. Think of the times you hear about us doing a water main replacement project. That’s all part of our effort to upgrade outdated and poor performing pipes. Just because water infrastructure is invisible to us doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And water might fall from the sky and flow through our rivers, but it is far from free. Processing it, treating it, and bringing it to and from your house costs money, and no matter how much or little water we use, there will be a continued need to invest in the water system to keep it functioning properly.

The good news is, we can be ahead of the curve. Deferred maintenance — waiting until a water main breaks or a system breaks down — is the most expensive repair possible. But if we continually maintain the system — upgrading our pipes and implementing smarter technology that spots weaknesses in the system before they turn into breaks — then we can save money in the long run. For Kentucky American Water, that means investing approximately $20 million annually in capital improvements while working hard to improve efficiencies so we can keep operating expenses as low as possible.

We are also joining other utilities in raising the level of discussion about water and wastewater infrastructure needs, because as a nation, everyone needs to understand the cost behind operating and maintaining water infrastructure that plays such a big role in the quality of our lives. We are proud to be sponsoring an infrastructure summit in Lexington coordinated by the Kentucky League of Cities on Oct. 14 to address just this issue. Water professionals and elected leaders will attend to share ideas and gain insight on how to address water infrastructure needs in their respective communities.

We will continue to do our part to heighten the dialogue, and for our customers, we will continue to make appropriate, disciplined investment in our systems while keeping other expenses as low as possible. We want to avoid our customers ever having to imagine a day without water.

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Cheryl Norton is president of Kentucky American Water and has more than 25 years of experience in the water utility industry.

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