Flowing water is unbelievably powerful. A small river can deeply etch rock into a canyon, turn an arid desert into a Garden of Eden and generate enough power to electrify a city. It is also a universal solvent because more substances dissolve in water than any other chemical. This has to do with the water molecule’s polarity where it can attract both positive and negative ions. Water, and real water loss, have the power to bring both sides of the political-ideological spectrum together when it comes to funding infrastructure improvements.
Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021. There is debate on how best to allocate this funding. This money should be spent finding and fixing leaks in potable water pipes. There are over 2.2 million miles of water distribution system piping in the United States, delivering 39 billion gallons of water daily for public use. It is estimated that 6 billion gallons per day, or 15.3%, is lost to leakage from aging pipelines. Some of this is leakage that surfaces and can be identified and fixed and some is non-surfacing leakage. The non-surfacing leakage is the recalcitrant water loss that causes the bulk of the issue. Finding hidden leaks can be problematic. However, the same satellite-based remote earth observation technology that is being used in Ukraine to locate Russian tank columns can be used to locate underground leaks. This synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology can pinpoint water leaks from pipelines on a broad geographic scale and at low cost.
Reducing this real water loss has value well beyond the saving of water. Customers save money due to the lower net cost of water production. It benefits workers and the economy by creating thousands of new good paying jobs repairing pipelines. It effectively creates a new water supply that can be used to support residential population growth, industrial and commercial activities, and agricultural activities or can provide environmental benefits. It also reduces the overall energy footprint of the municipal water sector. It is estimated that it takes 3340 KwH per million gallons to treat and distribute drinking water to US customers. It takes 270 gallons, or 6.4 barrels, of oil to produce the electricity needed to treat and deliver one MGD of water to the public. The EPA calculates that 1.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas is created per million gallons of water delivered.
If the real water loss from the US potable water system can be reduced to 10% from its current rate almost 2 billion gallons of water per day will be saved. This equates to 12,800 barrels of oil per day or 4.7 million barrels of oil per year. In addition, 2800 metric tons per day, or 1 million tons per year, of GHG emissions would be eliminated.
Beyond the current funding program the federal government, through the EPA, can institute incentives or mandates similar to car fuel efficiency standards related to maximum loss rates from water systems. Direct grant or loan programs can incentivize utilities to act. Alternatively the EPA could provide leak pre-location satellite imagery for the entire US water system which is available to utilities to assist in a water loss reduction mandate.
A program such as this would encourage and accelerate water resource stewardship, promote economic development through the addition of raw material to industrial, commercial and agricultural endeavors, reduce customer utility costs, create good paying jobs, reduce dependence on imported oil and reduce GHG emissions. The power of flowing water is great but the impact of plugging leaks and stopping that flow can be greater. This is a bi-partisan infrastructure program we should all support.