Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly

Ruptures in aging water systems cause pollutants to seep into water supplies, but in many cities residents have protested rate increases to fix pipes.

Comments: 125

  1. I work as a librarian. Daily, I am shocked by how the public expects the underfunded library and inadequate staff to give them what they want. This nation spends money on video games, bottled water, and Christmas decorations, but doesn't want to invest in infra-structure and human capital. That's how empires fall.

  2. If there ever was a "shovel ready" project to utilize TARP money this is it.

  3. Tax the rich.

  4. Plenty of money for pipes in Iraq and Afghanistan though.

  5. As city employees searched for underground valves, a growing crowd started asking angry questions. Pipes were breaking across town, and fire hydrants weren’t working, they complained. Why couldn’t the city deliver water, one man yelled at Mr. Hawkins.


    Easy answer

    Necause those who use the services do NOT want to pay the real cost.

    Because those who use the services want everything at a bargain basement rate without thought for tomorrow.

    Because those who use the services bought into the 'cut taxes' and 'government is evil' mantra of the right-wing who are only converned with preserving the wealth of the upper 1/10th of 1% and creating an aristocracy of inherited wealth.

    Because between the "I want something for nothing' attitude of the masses and the 'We won't pay because we are the rich and aren't going to carry our fair share' of the upper 1%, there is no money.

    Cut the military spending in 1/2 and there is exactly enough money to pay $335,000,000,000 to repair all the water systems.

    Oh right....forgot. I forgot that it is more important to start wars of choice to bolster the testosterone driven egos of the armchair hawks than to maintain and create a 21st century infrastructure...... I forgot that it is more important that the upper 1% keep the 80% of all wealth and assets in the US in their vaults and that the upper 1% - and in particular the upper 1/100th of 1% - pay less taxes as a percentage of their income than the clerk at the grocery store does.

  6. At times I fear for our country, in the belief constantly promoted (especially by those who are often called conservatives but are actually radicals, often being funded by large and very powerful international corporations) that we don't have to pay taxes (which essentially is what is being asked in this case) to have what we need. California is a perfect example of what happens when this becomes an operating principle of governance, when it takes two-thirds of the legislature to raise a tax. (I read that this is a principle being advocated by the Tea Party Movement, which is also advocating the privatization of governmental services.) Undoubtedly there will be those who will use this as an opportunity to promote privatizing the delivery of water, and then we will be up-the-creek. In anticipation of that argument, I recommend the documentary BlueGold, which is on DVD and can be got through Netflix. It is an essential source of information on topic of our water supplies.

  7. This looks like we have some perfect projects for the stimulus. Isn't the idea to provide jobs & get needed work done?

  8. Irresponsible journalism -- again.

  9. Perhaps all those billions spent killing Iraqis might be better spent at home...

  10. Would we rather do without fresh water or sewer systems??? How about having the sewers all open in July when the temperature outdoors is in the 90's?? In San Jose we are sensible enough to have just completed new sewer pipes and fresh water systems in most of the city for 1 million people or more. Not many!! But then some people would prefer typhoid to a few dollars more a year for fresh water and sewer pipes. The contractors doing it must be watched over like anyone else must be so the money is used right. But to me it's a "no brainer". FIX or REPLACE the pipes--all of them!! If these others keep procrastinating, Haiti will be in better shape 10 years from now than some places here. LOVELY!!

  11. This is just one example of how we do things in this nation of ours.
    We go for the short term over the long term.
    We think in terms of how will this affect me and not how my children or their children will be affected.
    We benefited from prior generations which had the wisdom to plan for the future and not just for themselves.
    They built the railway system, and when that became obsolete they built the highway system.
    What did we build.
    We built the internet.
    A perfect example of something that was primarily designed for right now.

  12. Another plot by the Democrats to make America a socialist country. Everyone knows we can't afford good water. Mediocre water is good enough, if you don't believe me ask Stossel. If you don't like the public water you can always buy bottled water.

  13. As a nuanced thinking progressive New Yorker, it's clear to me that assessing such fees citywide would unfairly burden the most vulnerable among us. Each day, citizens would arrive home and open their mail only to find that their rate have skyrocketed. One equitable solution would be to levy a rent and monthly fee surcharge of 15% on Manhattan residential property.

  14. This is a huge problem all around the country. Instead of ignoring it, we should be doing something to address the problem rather than passing yet another burden onto our children. It seems like a great opportunity to create jobs and utilities are definitely more critical to everyday life than cable TV. Sheesh!

  15. Typical. The guys complaining about paying $60 dollars a month ($2/day) for household water probably had $2 bottles of water with them as they spoke.

  16. Populaation biologists has long understood that the populations of plants and animals (including humans) are limited by factors like available food, sunlight, water, habitat, nutrients (nitrogen, phosporus, etc.) and habitat. Now it appears that one of the key limits to human populations in this country will be to the community cooperation, imagination and willingness to maintain the infrastucture that allows megalopolis densities.

  17. Would be costly is one way to put it. That the past subjunctive case is used to express the despair of Mr. Duhigg and our New York Times in encouraging. It shows the most laudable concern.

    The past subjunctive might be used in a whole slew of areas.

    I do not recall a New York Times article that spells out just who owns vast segments of our water supply and distribution plant. NB: it may be investors from Germany.

    Nor do I recall reading the number of different ways the most professional investor can invest in fresh water across the planet. NB: it's venture investing, based here.

    Nor have I read the projections that detail what water will cost in a few short years.

    And I do not believe we have been educated to understand what China will do to supply it's fresh water needs, among others - others, as in needs and water, take your pick.

    Consult CIA stuff that's never printed - but well understood within the VC community.

    That The United States of America is in deep trouble on every front is clear. Fresh water and sewage are but two among the critical areas.

    The low cost bidders and the union labor obliged in public works in so-called competitive bidding have delivered the most poorly built roads, bridges, hospitals, railways, tunnels, homes, buildings, power systems, and infrastructure, and the list is growing as the stimulus money is sprinkled most everywhere, without a hint of common sense.

    Charles Duhigg's reporting on water is fabulous and lasting.

    Would in not be fantastic if the financial end of The Times reporting would - or could - manage something of similar quality.

    When a dear friend said - about 22 years ago - he could no longer read The Times - he said he found it too painful, I did not fully understand. He was approaching 90. That was Peter Blos PhD., the great analyst.

    He was not kidding.

  18. Why are American voters so stupid!

    You have to pay for services! Start being a more active participant in your community's policies!

  19. Seems like a great project to provide some jobs. I wonder which cities have been doing a good job and making needed improvements all along. I can understand people are upset paying for repairs and not wanting rate increases but I wonder if somehow magically the repairs could be done at no additional charge, would they still be against doing the repairs. Someone has to pay for the work. It may as well be the current users. We certainly can't charge people who are either dead or gone. The fact that the systems have lasted so long is a tribute to the good work of the engineers and tradesmen who designed and installed them.

  20. Dear NY Times I worked in water and wastewater resources in New Mexico for over 10 years. In that time I saw EPA always pushing the idea that there was a big gap in funding for new and renovated water and wastewater systems without ever talking about the real gap which is what people are willing to pay for these services. EPA did not do their job in putting more pressure on people either through the clean water act or the safe drinking water act to pay for their own up keep and maintenance of the systems upgraded or bought for them with state and federal funds. In New Mexico it is especially difficult since the state legislature puts out "pork" grants that are just enough to keep a water and or wastewater system afloat and out of the red. People in New Mexico are not especially rich in these rural areas but when we start paying more for cable than our utility systems then we are in trouble. The utility rate gap is what we have to address instead of the funding gap which just keeps EPA in business and continues an agency which has never really addressed the basic problem of maintaining what we have. Keith Melton

  21. It's sad that our nation has come to the point where a mild hike in rates is too much to ask to keep raw sewage from flowing into the ground. It's a toxic combination of lack of interest in the common good and a strange belief that the government needs no money to provide the many essential services it provides. But I guess we, as a society, have finally succumbed to the "taxes bad, government corrupt" myth that moneyed interests posing as "good old folks" have bashed us over the head with since Reagan. Until we can get it into our thick heads that you can't run a society without a well-funded government, we're going to be stuck in a downward spiral of public degradation.

  22. And Mr. Hawkins is an American hero!

    Let's celebrate more of the George Hawkins' in our country and less Britney Spears' and Lil' Waynes'!

  23. Charging the users of water in proportion to their usage is not the only or best way to finance the maintenance of vital infrastucture.

    One of the reasons that city land is valuable and country land is less so is that the former has access to extensive infrastructure. Were that infrastructure to degrade and become unreliable, as some parts of the infrastructure in Iraq have become unreliable or subpar, urban land value would drop.

    But there is a largely untapped resource which we ought to be using far more of: the rental value of urban land. The land under, say, Midtown Manhattan would become far less valuable if there were not a reliable water supply. Yet most of the economic rent on that land resides in the pockets of the landholders, rather than being collected by the city for public purposes. Yes, this is traditional. It is also dumb.

    Leona Helmsley told the truth when she told us that "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." We ought to be taxing our urban land value more heavily to finance all the kinds of services which make that urban land so valuable.

    We rely on taxes on sales and on wages and on buildings at the expense of having a healthy economy, and, as a byproduct, we get concentrated income and concentrated wealth.

    To learn more in the context of another city, you might search on "Ricardo's Law" and "tax clawback scam" for a short film on the subject.

    We ought to be tapping the economic rent on urban land to maintain our urban infrastructure.

  24. how did a white guy from harvard with no experience get named director of water in DC, a city that is almost all black ?
    Gotta assume some sort of old boy network here, which is exactly why we have
    *affirmative* action
    why is this not part of the story ?

  25. And how many $Trillions of dollars did Bush spend on illegal wars. How much does Obama spend every day on his esclation of the wars; on the hundreds of military bases around the world. And over 62% of the so-called national "economy" is military spending. A empire without a manufacturing base, bankrupt, that must borrow $Millions every day just to function- a failed education system, & all fair pay jobs gone forever. The grandchildren of current citizens will still be paying the national debt. No empire, much less democracy, ever survived militarism. Pres. Eisenhower warned of the industrial-military complex and that's all that is left of america.

  26. i was working for the mass water resources authority,when we had to raise fees we did and know boston mass has a state of the art water and sewer system ,know i work for the city and county of honolulu ,i feel like i am back in 1986 out here crumbling streets ,crumbling sewer system ,train is coming to honolulu,know please look at me on hawaii news station khon 2 for the story on wastewater 3-10-10,thanks i would appreciate all comments ,thanks jimmy .by the way the judge garrity , was the man that ordered the mass water to fix deer island in the mid eighties,and he also was known for the crisis called forced busing,mahalo

  27. Ok, sorry for the third post, but just wanted to apologize if my first comment wasn't very constructive...

    *goes back to class reading..*

  28. Well, no surprise there - it's been all about me, me, me! The costly version of setting the kiddies in front of a TV to keep 'em quiet. Now grown up, they can't balance a check-book.

    From what happened with the housing/financial bubble, melt-down and crash, it's all too clear that far too many of us became completely spendthrift regarding our personal wants and desires, but cheaper than cheap - and reckless - towards critical needs. Let someone else worry about the infrastructure, and don't bother me while I'm downloading or texting....

    The result? Million of kids with phone plans, but families losing homes by the millions - leading to the slow crumbling of communities all across our nation. Sorry, but I find it hard to be very sympathetic.

  29. Let's see. People protest rate increases to fix the infrastructure in their communities.

    Do they then eagerly drink the polluted water, or just go buy some bottled stuff? Are they among those who complain about the deteriorating public services provided in this nation.

    Is the water in their Jacuzzis polluted?

  30. Like there's a choice!

    We're all in this together. It's got to be done. It's no one's fault.

  31. "Providing inexpensive, reliable water is a fundamental obligation of government."

    Yes, Mr Graham, I agree with the last part. Tell me how the construction, operations, maintenance and repair/replacement can be done cheaply? If it's not the people receiving the water paying for it, who else should?

    because you are a politician spokeshole, you only make statements that will help get you re-elected instead of solving problems.

    Infrastructure problems in this country will require massive infusions of cash. otherwise, we will crumble even faster from within.

    People pay $2, $3, $4 or more dollars for a bottle of water (maybe a quart) but complain if their $60/month bill for 1000's of gallons is raised.

    Pull your head out of the sand Mr Graham.

    Keep up the good fight Mr Hawkins

  32. Thank goodness Mr. Hawkins is pushing for investment in the water system in the nation's capital. For decades Atlantans ignored the need for investment. After the city was sued in federal court, the city's leaders decided to invest in sewer system upgrades. The city's Clean Water Program includes water and sewer upgrades and replacement valued at over $3.7 billion by 2014. Twice the voters have voted to approve a one cent sales tax to support the investment and the City City Council has adopted water/sewer rate increases that make Atlanta's rates among the highest in the country. This investment will pay benfits in new jobs and economic development in Atlanta for years to come. No city can expect to grow, to be healthy or to support a growing economy without clean water in ample supply.

  33. Seems strange that we know in our business organization how long a building will last or how long until the roof will need replacing.

    And all that preventative maintenance information is tracked on special software and has been for decades.

    Why are we not doing the same with city infrastructure?

    Just tell the truth.

  34. Such an important topic. It's startling to find out just how old the water systems actually are; it's almost a miracle that they still work at all! Here's the root of the problem - America has neglected its infrastructure on many fronts for generations, the water and sewerage systems being only part of the problem. We have neglected these fundamentals in favor of spending money on other fronts, perhaps more visible but maybe less important, such as wars.

    Now comes the time to face an unpalatable truth and that is that unless we are willing to pay for it the infrastructure will continue to crumble (think bridges collapsing and other unpleasant scenarios). We are a country that has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Kudos to this guy for saying it like it is - it's about time we concentrate on fixing our own country.

  35. This is like everything else in America: when it was cheaper to fix it, we ignored it so we could get bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger bellies.

  36. When appearance trumps competence, this is what you get. Better come up with some money and humility to pay very well the *competent* engineers who can actually get the job done, make the top management engineers too, and give them the freedom to do it right without political nonsense. If you keep hiring for appearances, it'll cost you five times and it won't get done right. Remember the Big Dig in Boston. Falling tiles in a new tunnel killed a woman driving through. We don't have the money to fool around any more. Make it rewarding for someone to put aside the distractions and actually study in college. Recognize that if you have someone who knows the water system due to years of experience, *that's* who you put in charge. Quit with the public relations already. Fire people who don't work. Make sure everyone that you're paying, is actually getting the work done.

  37. Stories like this one continually amaze me.
    Reading this article, I sense once again that attempts to improve delivery of the nation's water supply is being thwarted by the anti-tax lobby and the waive of protest against anything government tries to do to improve the quality life for the average citizen, especially if it means increasing the average water bill to pay for modern H2O pipes and sewage treatment plants.
    I am sure most americans like the idea of clean water, but it appears from reading this article that they just don't want to pay for it.

  38. What do people think? It should be free. Maybe a little Typhoid fever to start with may change there thinking. Yes

  39. I find it bewildering where our priorities lie. Of all the things in this world that could be neglected, water is perhaps the most essential to our well-being. How unfortunate it is that keeping water clean, safe and well-circulated can be so inconvenient. Not only in this particular issue - defect of water delivery systems - but any issue with water at the core. Now I don't think that bursting pipes is the most dire scenario with regards to water. I do feel, however, it is ignorant to demand the luxury of running water while protesting the cost of it.
    On another note, a massive restoration project of the nation's water delivery systems could be a good way to generate jobs while doing something productive.

  40. If President Obama and the Democrat Leadership had any brains, which they appear to be lacking, they would invest in this very important infrastructure, thus creaing American JOBS!!!!!!!!

  41. As usual - people only want to pay for something if it helps them - well we all need water - so pay up and shut up....let the reconstruction begin....

  42. Americans need to grow up. Providing water and sewage are just another opportunity for big government to gain control over our lives. Of course we have crumbling infrastructure, liberals have been in power! What we need is to back to our roots and gather water and dispose of waste individually, with no government interference!

  43. This scenario is being played out in cities across the nation. In the meantime, legislation to provide money for infrastructure repairs languishes in the U.S. Congress. So while Rome, in this case the nation, drowns, Nero, Obama and Congress in this case, fiddle. The country's status is slowly becoming third world as a result of an unprecedented leadership void in this country.

  44. We need to decide what is more important to us, and to our children and grand children:

    5' wide t.v. screens, McMansions and Hummers,
    reliable, affordable, clean food, water and air.

    What we decide will determine if our children and their children regard us as thoughtless barbarians, or, careful stewards of limited resources.


    p.s. I do mean affordable air. In some parts of the world, the air is so polluted people must pay for a few breaths of oxygen from vending machines. What ARE we doing to ourselves?

  45. It is the same old thing, people want something for nothing.

  46. When asked what was the greatest achievement of the 1900s, my husband said sewage treatment. Try listing all the diseases that sewage causes. List all the possible alternatives to water for a drink. Then go back to the 1800s, then all the way back to the Romans who built the first sewers and indoor drinking, bathing and flushing potty water rooms.
    Sewage treatment keeps everybody clean and free of most third world diseases. Most of these diseases are still not curable. Cancer is enough for an city or town to deal with.
    If we could get the royal class to spread their money around in our mutual homeland, we should be able to keep up with it all. But considering we live in a transplant country, we may be expecting more "social capitol" (moral grace) than most Americans care to give. I grew up with an outhouse and a bucket in house.
    You need to know, it stinks! Do your duty to kids. Clean water,safe sewers. No rats. It is possible for all
    now, and necessary especially when you live in close yards. I'd rather have a vacation, but not in a country with sewage and water problems.

  47. I've known about this for a few years now, it's part of our crumbling Infrastructure Obama regards as insignificant, and was so miserly in regard to in his lame weak misdirected Stimulus plan...even after all the great work the Brookings Institute did on it...

    We're rebuilding nations that are little more than spots on the map but neglecting our nation and it's people terribly ...

    Of course Larry Summers that loser who nearly bankrupted Harvard is against Infrastructure...and Obama clings to his every word like a babe in the woods...!

  48. Not much more costly than building, maintaining and operating the new fleet of air tanker/refueling aircraft that Boeing is going to build and the Air Force operate.

  49. I wonder about those people who think government should be so small that you can drown it in a bathtub. Maybe they'll think differently when they're drowning in their own sewage.

  50. Yes, especially as we need all that money to maintain our global military empire.

    Heaven forbid we should have to trim our planetary network of bases. Or opt for one less carrier group. Or decide that destroying the world ten times over is as good as doing it twenty times over and that, therefore, we can afford to cull our atomic stockpile.

    This country has a hopelessly screwed-up sense of priorities.

  51. thank you mr. hawkins.....perhaps someday we will understand that being a great, in all senses of the word, country does not come for free....and that there is only so much that we can defer to someone else or some other time, be it defense, education, health care and, yes, infrastructure before an inevitable and permanent decline occurs.

  52. Americans are waging war overseas while backing their allies who wage war. The Tea party thinks it can wave a magic wand to restore the nation's financial health, even though the Tea party favors unending warfare. Leading progressives who say they're against war will always vote for it in Congress, specially when a cherished ally asks for support. Why do Americans think warfare's more important than clean water? If warfare means so much, why do Americans oppose the draft?

  53. Get out of Iraq. Now. Use the money for US jobs rebuilding our water & sewage systems.

  54. I guess Charles Duhigg is right, here I am a day after this was published and there are zero comments posted with the online version of this article. We here in the eastern states don't think about the necessity that clean drinking water plays in our everyday lives but it is the very essence of our survival. Many western states and most other nations are already too acutely aware of the value of having clean potable water. The very fundamentals of the urban development model we here in the Untied States have embraced for years is flawed. We prefer development and its ribbons of asphalt and vast paved over areas where once water discharge areas were. The spread of housing development, shopping and parking lots in ever increasingly dense population centers is proving to be unsustainable. Even if Mr. Hawkins manages to replace his crumbling infrastructure the larger question still looms, will that new infrastructure be able to manage and properly treat the over whelming sewage effluent of Washington D.C.? I'm doubt it and remained concerned that our nation will eventually wake up one day to the cold hard reality that we've squandered away our legacy of pristine clean drinking water after it's too late.

  55. This has clearly been a long time coming. New York City used to have a reputation as the 'cleanest city water in the world.' That belief was from the 1940s. The stimulus package didn't target any infrastructure money for this? Oh, brother......

  56. I thought that the "stimulus package" was designed to invest in decaying infrastructure. Where is it?

  57. In my opinion, the rehabilitation of our water supply and sewerage infrastructure is unlikely to occur as long as we have groups such as the Tea Party who would rather drink polluted water than have the government dictate standards and tax them for infrastructure improvement.

    As the German philosopher Goethe wrote, "Not even the Gods can cope with stupidity".

    So don't pay taxes and don't allow the government to set health standards and live free until you die of Cholera or Thyphoid.

  58. Seven years ago, I was paying $13 a month for only water. Today, I am paying $35 a month. My consumption has not increased although I now garden, I landscaped, I bought a washing machine and dishwasher and went from a one person household to three. I don't use more water because I CARED to research native plants, drought resistant plantings and an arrangememt that utilized rain water from the roof. I put in a $200 toilet that uses less than 1.6 gpf. I turn off the water when I brush my teeth. My washing machine is a High Efficiency machine that even uses less detergent. I have managed to water citrus and keep them alive and producing through some drought years. The professionals at the water board have failed.

    The municipality supplying the water has gone bankrupt again. They have never done work on infrastructure and it shows with regular sewerage spills. I am fed up. If I can do the footwork to be responsible, the city should, too.

    I agree, people are willing to pay for cable and cell phones and scream about the price of an essential, water. The big cities like Atlanta scream they need more water diverted for their use, yet they put in housing developments that encourage expansive, useless lawns sucking up the precious water.

    What do they think will happen to the estuaries where shrimp get their start? Are they ready to give up shrimp and grits? Or shall we import all of our seafood dependent upon clean abundant water?

    Think before you run that hose~

  59. Actually, municipalities and states have been aware of this problem for decades; but like our crumbling roads and bridges, Americans have wilfully ignored their decay, and evolved into irrational, anti-tax reactionaries voting against their own best interests.

    We were too busy giving tax breaks to the rich folks who promised us jobs, but who took them abroad instead, and pocketed the windfall.

    Tax breaks are inherently regressive; and when an important revenue stream was vaporised by misbegotten "taxpayer revolts" (funded by the rich folks, naturally), so went the ability to upgrade needed services.

    The lesson comes too late, but taxes are not as irksome as our unwillingness to ensure they are spent wisely.

    (Wearisome Tea Party screaming and yelling in 3...2...1...!)

  60. With all the ET junk in this article, the writer should go to work for the National Enquirer. What do the DC water chief's hair length and off-duty pastimes have to do with our infrastructure problems?

  61. Fighting useless wars in Asia and providing military protection (for reasons beyond my ken)to other troublesome client states on the periphery of Asia could be abandoned. That would likely pay for safeguarding our drinking water and sewer facilities with an abundance left over.

  62. I wonder if the people who expect government to provide them clean water are the same people who want "less government." If you have a government that only protects the borders and conducts wars, I guess you're on your own to dig a water well and hope that the three million other people in your city who also have to dig wells don't pollute your water or use it up. Maybe you'll have to use your handgun to stop them. Of course, they have handguns, too. Call the police - no, wait, that also would be more government.

  63. Out of sight is out of mind. Infrastructure is inherently out of sight, at least until it breaks down. After 30 years of the Republican mantra of lower/no taxes and "the government is the problem", along with the utter degradation of the educational system such that few people comprehend what happens when they flick a light switch, turn on the water or flush a toilet or do any of the myriad ordinary acts of living in a highly complex industrial environment, it is to be expected that people are dumbfounded by reality, and don't want to pay for it.

    Not paying for an infrastructure re-build now will be much more costly in the long run. But let's see a politician propose a hike in taxes to cover water, sewage, smart grids, rapid transit, etc. Or better yet, let's see our wonderful market economy magic build them for cheaper than the government can do it if it has the tax money to do so. I am certain the result would be like our health-care system - expensive, not really good, available only to the wealthy, and very profitable for some....

  64. The New York Times should also contact the New York Rural Water Association, whose experts can comment on how desperately critical this issue is. Many citizens perceive the crumbling infrastructure problem as one faced by large cities, but it is also a crisis in rural America. It is especially frustrating to see water and wastewater systems crumble, not for lack of interest, but for lack of a tax base to support repairs and upgrades. Another looming crisis is the shortage of qualified, licensed and experienced wastewater operators to run and maintain the systems. In the shrinking job market, these opportunities are overlooked because somehow doing this work is perceived as menial. Wastewater plant operators are higly trained technical people who must have extensive knowledge of laboratory work and biology, pump maintenance, electrical, plumbing and other trade skills. A well-trained, experienced operator will soon be able to name his or her own price in the marketplace because there simply will not be enough to go around. Too bad the public waits until its toilets are overflowing and water isn't coming out of the tap to realize how critical these utilities are.

  65. When the Republicans began to "starve the beast", they didn't tell the American Public that standing knee deep in our own excrement was part of the price.

  66. If you want to compete with the third world countries in the Global Economy, then you can expect to have sewers like those in the third world countries.

  67. I served as President of a small, community-owned water system for 10 years during which period the annual cost of water per household rose from $15 to $75. When it became necessary to make improvements to the infrastructure, we had the cash to do it with the money we had saved. Other communities usually had to assess their members/customers several hundred dollars when faced with the need to make similar improvements.

  68. Everyone is broke, and why was this stuff not fixed with there was plenty of money around? Oh ya, we gave all the extra money to the Super Rich in tax breaks, twice. Forgot.

  69. The costs of not fixing the water systems are far greater. The residents protecting rate increases obviously do not understand the dire need to fix our aging infrastructure nor do they appreciate the consquences of failing to do so.

  70. Water has never been properly priced, and grossly undervalued. The time is coming when society will have to pay the piper, so to speak.

  71. Keeping the cash flowing in the pipes around Wall Street was a lot easier.

  72. Facinating piece on an issue that may prove to be a bigger problem in the future than health care, education, or foreign quagmires. Water systems are definitely not the most exciting things to talk about, but water pipes are what allow most Americans (including myself) to live in densely crowded urban areas getting real sick.

    It was also interesting learning about the activist willing to spend years without seeing his family in order to raise public awareness about water issues. That sort of single-minded dedication reminds me of John Muir, another environmentalist who also dealt head-on with water systems in the battle over the building of Hetch Hetchy Dam in California.

  73. Stop the wars AND reduce the defense budget, tax corporations that send jobs off shore or use L-1B and H-1B visa, and increase taxes on the top 2% to 80% including hedge fund people and we'll have the money to take care of our own country.

  74. Another takeover is coming, folks, along with Obama and the EPA, who with the help of Holdren, want to stop the fishing in lakes and rivers too. If they can off the water supply to the farms in the valley in Calif. where 88,000 farmers and workers lost their crops, almond trees, etc. because of a 2 inch minnow, you better beleive they are coming after all of us who live near water..Chris Dodd was working on some legislation for that but it's been quiet on the home front lately, with all the focus being on health care, while Obama fiddles with executive orders to take over lands, etc. under a "monument act" from 1906-good old Teddy Rosevelt stuff, and again, this is place where congress has no jusidiction and cannot stop the EPA from setting it's own rules and regulations...Better stay focused, folks, it's all going on "behind closed doors" without our consent or input and this latest article only touches on what's to come from these progressives...They don't care if you like to fish or if commercial fishermen make their livings catching fish for us to eat...remember, Holdren beleives that animals should have more rights than people...focus, call, write, email, anything you can do to get the message to these people in Washington who have just shut out the will of the American people and are using their power in ways we will be greatly alarmed about.

  75. Which quip is more clever: " our infrastructure goes so goes our country...", or "...without plumbing there is no civilization..."? Doesn't really matter as long as childish petulance rules the debate.

  76. We have met the enemy and he is us. These breaking pipes are emblematic of the crumbling of the United States. Systems are failing everywhere. The educational system, bridges, roads, safety standards, ethics, oh, right, and the entire financial system. If it is still true that we are the greatest country on earth, then it must be really bad everywhere else.

    What is wrong with people that they cherish their TV cable more than clean water?

  77. This should not be a surprise to anyone. This is what happens when people want to pay less taxes and have less government. No one has thought much about our infrastructure for a very long time. Taxes pay for repair and maintenance of our bridges, roads and water systems. Gee, our taxes may actually be used on necessary things that our civilization needs like clean water.

  78. When you send jobs overseas, you eliminate income taxes - federal, state, and local. It turns out that the cheaper products made overseas are not so cheap afterall.

  79. Go Mr. Hawkins! Push for what you know is right. Politicians only care about being re-elected. People need to made aware of the situation. The message needs to be repeated again and again. Clean water is the number one priority. Already too many people are suffering from the effects of polluted water.

  80. As has been proven all over the world, politicians always are slow to raise rates to cover costs, for the obvious reason that getting re-elected is more important to them than society's welfare. Privatizing water systems, with rates approved by independent state commissions, is the only answer.

  81. Our nation's infrastructure needs attention, especially the utilities we all depend upon. People need to accept that, one way or another (higher taxes or higher rates), they are going to pay more for things they need the most, i.e., water and sewage treatment.
    How about diverting funding from hghway expansion projects to a) public transportation alternatives and b) utility infrastructure renovations.
    We spend huge amounts of money adding lanes to ease traffic in urban areas: why not remove lanes and make it more desireable to use mass transit? Then, we can focus on replacing those water pipes.

  82. Interesting nation in which we live. Presidents and Congress write blank checks amounting to trillions of dollars expended and committed for the luxury of fighting Forever War in the Middle East. And we stand by and allow bankers to loot our financial system. But nobody wants to spend any money to fix our infrastructure, despite how vital it is to everyone's well being, and despite how desperately jobs are needed. What does that tell you about our future?

  83. US citizens are simply used to having fresh, clean and potable water running in their taps. Getting this precious substance delivered to your home is not a right - it's a privilege and something well worth paying for. I live in a small city here in Mega Manila - Parañaque City that only began getting water provided by the Water Utility direct to my home starting about 20 years ago. Prior to that it was a nightmare getting potable water in our home - and that situation remains in other parts of this small city to this day. The cost to get water delivered to the house via small water tank trucks is about USD100 per month which is a fortune when average monthly salaries here is only USD200. Washington DC citizens should come here to my city to see how citizens cope with water provided direct to the home as compared to having to find some other way to getting it flowing from your taps - and then they can complain about poor service, paying more for it versus not having it at all.

  84. Perhaps a visual (read video with graphic explantions) explanation of the potential harms and problems that will likely arise if this issue is not addressed would help it sell to the residents. One finds it hard to imagine that locals are not concerned about their water supply if they are truly and repeatedly informed in a meaningful way. Collaborate with other cities, make the movie, post it on Facebook, Youtube and school science classes....

  85. Strikes me that companies like the one Mr. Hawkins worked for - the major polluters, should help to pay for the systematic replacement of infrastructure and the building of new water treatment and reclamation plants. These corporations, and GE springs to mind, spent more money trying to avoid clean-up than it would have to actually clean up their messes. Many pay no corporate income taxes thanks to their cadre of lawyers. It's time for a little corporate responsibility, especially now that they have such a huge voice in our elections.

  86. This is happening everywhere and will not be solved by complaining about taxes or running as a candidate who proclaims they will not raise taxes. Again, what are your priorities? Do you want water and sewer connections to your home? If so, someone has to pay for it.

  87. I would like for someone who doesn't want to pay extra taxes to explain their plan for fixing the system, including how it will be funded.

    I'm not saying that the rates should be raised, just that there should be some open discussion of what needs to be done, how much it costs, and how much money is coming in. This is clearly a major issue but should be relatively easy to explain so that most people can understand it and be able to consider the options.

  88. Contractors are drooling at the prospect of doing biig, big cash.

  89. It makes me sick to think how much good could have been done to our infrastructure had we not decided to spend trillions of dollars in wars in Iraq and Pakistan.

  90. Like our public sewage treatment and water systems, these are known civic problems that need to be addressed. They should have been being addressed all along.

    But like the demands of repairing our aging highway system, local and state governemnts don't have the huge financial resources available to them to rebuild. This is the time when infrastructure building should be taking place on a Federal level. Why is it that our governemnt cannot bond and build the basic systems that make cities and town work? Too many folks and their Congressmen are out there wringing their hands about the national debt, when they should be worrying about whether the toilet's going to flush in the morning!

    I think the Federal governemnt needs to set up reimbursements for bonding these repairs (or direct funding of them) so that local tax payers can afford to take care of the problems.

    This country can afford to fix these probelms on a massive scale, and should do it now. Thousands of our men and women in construction need the work. We do want our toilets to flow and fresh water coming out of our faucets, don't we? Or is that another governemnt intrusion into the private sector?

  91. Many utilities are run as for-profit businesses. One rationale for profit is for business to extract surplus capital from consumers in order to save and invest for new projects. Every business should be able to pay for its own upgrades -- presumably built at tax-payer cost in the first place. Should Toyota customers pay more for cars that accelerate during malfunction? Should they be responsible for funding the recall?

    Having said that, tax-payers and customers would probably feel better contributing to the problem if a few other issues were at least addressed: why is the delivery of water run by a for-profit utility, anyway? Where have previous issues of spending and compensation gone? Why hasn't any previous city government examined the problem before it reached crisis proportions? Doesn't that suggest a long trend of failed leadership? What is the state's role in funding the water issue? What is the Federal role? The list could go on for each locality.

    It finally raises the entire problem of US relative decline, in a wet nutshell. There's a lot wrong with the infrastructure of this country, but we're spending trillions building infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq. Contracts are awarded to firms everyday to build millions of dollars worth of bunkers, bases, roads, and pipes -- just look at the publicly posted contracts on DOD Buzz or Plus add in the bailouts and the Fed's program of quantitative easing and money printing. Money is seemingly everywhere in the hands of banksters and generals.

    Where is the leadership first asking rate-payers, tax-payers, and customers for a conversation about all these priorities? Why should anyone put down money for pipes when they can barely make ends meet as it is?

  92. We ALL want something for nothing. We consistently refuse to draw the line between sound infrastructure and the costs, typically higher taxes required to pay for that infrastructure. SHAME ON US ALL.

  93. is it news to learn people protest? I don't think so. Leadership, effective leadership brings protestors to the task. Where is the leadership required to get the job done?

  94. Just one more thing that is out of control.A new spectator sport: watching America unravel.

  95. The safety, maintenance, and improvement of our nation's water and sewer infrastructure is critical and hs been too long ignored. The President and Congress must make massive funding available on an annual reocurring basis to avoid a future disaster.

    Most American cities are serviced by 100 year old systems, which thankfully were over designed and over built in many cases by the engineers and elected officials at that time.

  96. Start taxing bottled water to pay for these repairs. Also, where is the stimulus money on this? Repairing infrastructure is a great use of funds.

  97. When a water or sewer piping system bursts it is just as critical as a bridge collapse. Isolationism teaches that every individual is to take care of himself. Thus throughout the third world the rich live within their gated enclaves while the rest of the population puts up with polluted water, no water, and open ditch latrines. Then they are blamed for spreading disease and more locked gates are erected. Soon this bunker mentality will set us all against each other and violence will result.

  98. Another government failure.

  99. Better improve our infrastructures than improve our weapons of mass destruction.

    Cut down the budget in half for the Military Industrial Complex for a healthier and safer America.

  100. I have a house near Lake Erie & each summer when all of the beaches are closed due to pollution, I am stunned at the non-reaction of nearby residents. They, who often watch raw sewage float past them, accept it as a matter of course. One would think that they woud be screaming for tougher laws & yes, maybe higher taxes to stop this abuse of our precious resource.
    Mr. Hawkins is admirable in his dedication, but my advice to him is to move back to his family. The system is irrevocably broken & no one cares. It's pathetic but true.

  101. Here in St. Louis, the sewer and water are controlled by the city and used as a profit center. The rates have been bumped up beyond any justifiable rate. Every penny is diverted to general revenue funds and given to sports franchises. No funds left at the end of the day to do the needed upgrades and no stomach for increased rates to do the work originally intended.

  102. Pay now or pay later. Educate folks that water is not, nor has it ever been, "free". Pay for it in a monthly bill, or pay for it indirectly through taxes. No matter what, it's going to cost.

  103. This is what happens when government loses sight of its spending priorities and chooses to funnel billions to subsidize the private sector while ignoring basic services. It's also systemic of the right-wing's mantra of no new taxes - people believe that they already pay too much in taxes, just as they believe that the government has lost sight of its spending priorities; unfortunately, in many instances this assessment is pretty accurate.

    By and large the public believes that government has a fundamental responsibility to maintain water and sewer services. This combined with the belief that their elected officials are incapable of allocating tax dollars wisely is why there's so much opposition in those communities trying to upgrade their systems.

    Unfortunately, the private sector will use this as an opportunity to convince public officials to privatize water and sewer systems throughout the US despite the fact that it often fails to deliver better and/or more cost-effective services and simply relies on taxpayer subsidies to generate a profit.

    DC is right to focus on raising the level of awareness through education and outreach. However, thirty plus years of failed conservative leadership has brought this country to the brink of despair. Taxpayers no longer understand the difference between "big" government and "effective" government. Until local, state, and federal officials restore the public's faith in their ability to properly allocate tax dollars by using those monies to improve the greater good, we'll continue to see an unwillingness to fund these projects and our infrastructure will continue to crumble and deteriorate at a rapid rate.

  104. I am willing to pay higher rates if it is for upgrading our sewer/water system. American cities are decaying. Upkeep of the infrastructure has been put off too long. In San Diego we gave away our downtown to developers to build a new baseball park for the Padres. Now they want us to give a billion dollars to the Chargers for a football stadium. We never have enough money for infrastructure but we always have enough for entertainment.

  105. This is the problem with the Tea Party mentality in a nutshell!

  106. This is a definite sign that the US is slowly but surely sliding into the league of third world nations.

  107. To put these costs in some perspective, it would be helpful if the NYT provided estimates of the potential costs of not having an up to date water and sewage system - e.g. emergency repairs, healthcare costs, lost work time due to illness, etc. Then perhaps people would better understand the true consequences of having inadequate water and sewage infrastructure.

  108. Lets start with Mr. Hawkins being completely unqualified for the job he holds. How much does that cost?

    We have been paying into these systems for years and years. Did the cities take the fees and use them to upgrade the water system? Nope. They used them on other things that had nothing to do with water. Now they are screaming crisis. How on earth can one of the most dysfunctional governments in this country, that being DC, have the nerve to ask for higher fees or taxes for anything. Get your own house in order. Stop wasting taxpayer dollars by the bushelfull on cronies and graft and just overall incompetence, then see where we are and if we need to raise anything.

    Try eliminating Davis-Bacon and prevailing wage laws and you will be able to do two miles of water main for the price of one but of course that would upset the construction unions and we can't have that, can we?

  109. The article reports that it would cost the U.S. tax payers $335 billion to maintain the nations tap water system in the coming decades. This is true only if government contractors must be compliant with the davis-bacon act when hiring labor. The Congress should repeal this racist jim-crow era legislation and give contractors for state and city goverments the freedom to pay workers based on market fundamentals rather than based on a ficticious average prevailing wage rate computed by some government bureaucrat.

  110. Mr. Hawkins' proposal is to raise water and sewer rates to be more in line with what people pay in the DC suburbs. The same people who are willing to pay two to three times more for bottled water than gasoline rant and rave about what the utility charges for the 70 gallons per person per day that they supply. I guess that's how you know that person who said that no one ever went broke underestimating the American public wasn't wrong.

  111. This problem goes back further than Bush, or Carter, Eisenhower. Many of these systems were build and then forgotten. Neither the people not the politicians wanted anything to know about putting money way to pay for repairs or rebuilding. Many of these managers have been struggling for funding just to keep up with the breaks in the lines. The problems comes from people not being charged for that the systems deliver or remove. Corporations dump huge quantities of waste into the sewers, yet they do not pay a surcharge to have that excess effluent treated. In many parts of the country, drinking water is wasted on automatic sprinkler systems that work even in the rain. Until we stop taking for granted those things that are necessary to live, like water and food, we will end up like those people in Soilent Green, starving and eating our own.

  112. The country has over 800,000 miles of drinking water pipe - enough to wrap around the earth over 32 times. The number of miles of wastewater pipe is similar. Nationally, we are replacing that pipe at a rate of less than 0.5% per year. That means that, overall, we are trusting our pipes to last over 200 years. Pipes do NOT last that long and the longer we under invest in repair and replacement, the harder it gets to catch up. For those interested in more information and discussion on the topic, the U.S. EPA has a facebook page set up called "Water Is Worth It."

  113. I'd say that if taxpayers had to choose between $2 billion airplanes that can't fly in the rain, and having clean, safe tap water, which would probably be the old priority, there? I'm thinking go with the tap water.

  114. The problem is that there has been/is currently so much money WASTED by our local governments that people are at the end of what they can afford on taxes. In almost every city we read about family/cronies being hired for joke jobs, we read about politicians spending HUGE amounts of cash redoing their offices when they first take office, city jobs with pay and benefits TWICE or more than the comparable private sector job, unions supporting people who CLEARLY have committed a crime, but, the city can't fire them until after a LENGTHY process and then they often can't because of a technicality..... Now when REAL issues that need to be paid for come up, people don't believe the cost is true and/or they can't afford the cost. For the cities it's a case of the "little boy who cried wolf". It will take BRAVE politicians cleaning up their acts and making REAL budget cuts before the people who pay the taxes believe them and can afford the cost of the repairs.

  115. "Saving U.S. Water and Sewer Systems Would Be Costly"

    Oh. Okay, never mind.

  116. To have very old water networks, water treatments plants and wastewater systems, ia a paradoxical event.
    The good news are that, many, many years ago, in early days, many wise people and fellow citizens were concerned about water and wastewater, about good life quality and, naturally about health. Every great country have old pipes. That is one of the reasons of its greatness.
    The bad news are, in the other hand, the existence of an insidious and perverse archetype : "investment below real needs". This insidious parasite is, at the same time, cause and consequence of financial anguish. It´s the cause, because, I you don´t invest, you will have very old facilities and networks, and in line with the tragedy, very high operation, repair and maintenance costs. And it is the consequence, because, if you have high operation, repair and mantenance costs, you will never have money in the budget, to invest in replacement and upgrading the old facilities.
    So, how do we escape from that bad "loop". There is just only one answer : "wise investment".
    How do you get now the budget and which your horizon will be, are other problems.
    The problem, then, is not the age of the networks, but what you did not do during decades.
    But don´t get angry with the Water Authorities, specailly with the oldies; maybe - and it frequently happens - they didn´t invest in replacements, because they had to build new facilities for people who never had anything.
    Safe water and networks, wastewater systems and treatment plants and water pollution control are part of health insurance. If your neighbor is healthy, you probably too.
    For every dollar you invest in water facilities and wastewater systems, you save two or three dollars in health costs.
    Now, if you have decided to invest, be careful with the archetype in the years to come. And if you will not be in the future, send the message to everbody who will be in your place.

  117. In my opinion, the reason why many Americans don't want to pay higher taxes is that they do not trust their government to deliver on their obligations.
    The sewers in my home town were impacted by heavy rains in 2004. It took concerned individuals like me and my neighbors to encourage and pressure the local government to take the appropriate remedial actions.

    I learned that many local communities share common problems with other communities, and that seldom are Best Practices known or understood. The EPA Clean water act should be followed by municipalities and every locality who dumps raw sewage, even after a heavy rain, should be forced into a management review process.

    I advocate public sit ins with 'h' in second place on the steps of our government buildings until the problem is fixed. Maybe fake feces should be used to avoid unnecessary arrests.

  118. The integrity of our water and wastewater infrastructure is a serious issue, and it is only one of several ticking time bombs. More and more of our bridges are passing the 50 year mark, the interstate boom having occured in the 50s and 60s. And what about building facades? The first non-bearing curtainwalls were constructed over 50 years ago. Once infrastructure gets this old, the problems just snowball. Where is the urgency for this? Are we just going to have to get used to blooming cess pools and chunks of concrete falling through the air on a regular basis? It sure is starting to look that way.

  119. There are two reasons for this problem.
    1. The USA has been spending trillions in the past 50 years to fight mostly unnecessary wars all over the world. There is money to build expensive warships and airplanes but no money to repair the infrastructure. The cost of one aircraft carrier would probably pay for the renewal of the sewage systems of most major cities.
    2. Americans don't want to pay taxes to pay for government services. "We want less government" is the mantra of the tea party movement. No government, no taxes may work in a tribal society but not in a country like the USA. Should the GOP come to power again based on tea party philosophy, our problems would be multiplied.

  120. Yes, this is another example of we don't want government interfering in our lives and yes we want government to fix the leaky pipes and no we don't want to pay anymore tax dollars and why can't you fix the pipes and when I get sick I want to get medical attention and no I don't want socialized medicine. The American public has become like a spoiled two year old who say no, no, no but wants mom to fix everything. Imagine Obama trying to reason with this type of citizenry. Good luck trying to reason with a two year old.

  121. Hey, I know how to fix these systems....... let Walmart run them! It seems a perfect fit. People want a low, low price and never mind the details of how and why.

  122. I think the federal government is wrong to keep extending unemployment payments. These men and women need JOBS. Some of them have the skills to tackle these types of problems. They also need the sense of worth of having a job instead of a check. HIRE these men and women to do these kinds of repairs - even if you only can afford them three days a week with the same unemployment money.

    If I lost my job (and none of us are completely safe from that), there are skills that I have and I would want to work for my money. I may not have the skills to run the types of equipment that these kinds of jobs require, but I am perfectly capable of cleaning underbrush, sweeping, painting and moving things from place to place. I can direct traffic around construction zones, fetch water, carry supplies.

    America is missing an opportunity that it took advantage of during the Depression - to do some interior work that is really needed. Our national parks need work. Our roads and infrastructure needs work and we have a great number of people we could employ to do these things.

  123. “I don’t care why these pipes aren’t working!” one of the residents yelled. “I pay $60 a month for water! I just want my toilet to flush! Why do I need to know how it works?” Ahhh, how about knowing what you're paying for? You need to know something about your car -- would you start screaming at the dealer if you ran out of gas and didn't bother to refill it? Would you start screaming at the real estate agent if your roof started to leak? Come, grow up. Water is an essential, and yeah, you need to know that an aging system needs to be repaired and replaced and that's not going to come free.

  124. The tax and spend liberals strike again. Cincinnati is imposing a huge increase in a stealth fashion. About 12% a year for 3 years. The waste collection fees have risen about 20% over the last 4 years. Electricity has risen about 30% over the last 3 years. This is all not sustainable. This does not even count the huge expenses that are coming if the Obama administration is able to penalize carbon dioxide emissions.

    Liberals need to realize that money does not grow on trees and that throwing money at problems does not solve them. (See education)

    One way to save money is to more closely analyze federal rules governing water pollution to decide whether the sometimes small risks of certain types of pollution are not worth the costs of remediation. The big issue though is that there are numerous constituencies that are seeking government money, and there is no central authority saying that taxpayers cannot afford the many programs that are constantly popping up. Liberals left to their own devices would tax 200% of everyone's income.


    PS To #1 Librarian. Perfect example of waste. In Internet age, there is much less of a need for libraries. If spending was not substantially due to inertia, spending on libraries would be much less.

  125. Nothing reveals the shortsightedness of teh US public more than there resistance to paying taxes to repair their sewer and water systems.

    The advances made in the last 100 years in the fight against infectious diseases started with the introduction of sewer and water treatment. Both have had a more dramatic effect on reducing the incidence of infectious dieases than all the drugs discovered.