Campus & Community

Billions needed to maintain reliable water system

2 min read

In a review of the nation’s public drinking water systems, researchers from the water and health program at the School of Public Health (SPH) say that reliable and safe water is available to nearly all 270 million U.S. residents. But, they also find that maintenance and repair of the public water infrastructure has been severely neglected and that at least $151 billion must be spent over the next two decades to guarantee the continued high quality of U.S. water. Additionally, the researchers predict that global warming could significantly harm water availability and quality.

The article, “U.S. Drinking Water Challenges in the Twenty-First Century,” was written by Ronnie B. Levin, a research scientist in the Environmental Epidemiology Program at SPH, and colleagues. It appears in the February 2002 supplement issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, Reviews in Environmental Health (

Among the researchers’ observations:

Water rates have been insufficient to cover long-run costs. Water pricing should adequately finance the maintenance of the public infrastructure and should also include the costs of watershed or aquifer management. Current annual spending for capital investments and operations by water suppliers is about $36 billion and needs to increase by $15 billion.

Finding ways to coordinate water supply decisions and operations among decentralized water suppliers will be essential given continuing scientific and health research that has driven increasingly strict drinking water regulations stemming from the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 1997, there were about 54,000 permanent community water supplies in the United States.

Global warming may have adverse effects on water distribution, availability, and quality in the United States.

“Over the last century, the U.S. has set the world standard for ensuring a reliable, relatively safe drinking water supply to the general public,” said Levin. “But population demands, continuing scientific research, and past public policy have created serious challenges for our public water supplies in the next century. The longer we delay, the higher the price tag will be. There are no surprises here.”