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Addressing Americans’ Misconceptions About Water Infrastructure

water infrastructure

Our country’s water infrastructure has reached a pivotal point in recent years. We know that without proper investment, maintenance and dedication, the water and wastewater systems we depend on will become less reliable. But consumers do not really know about the state of our nation's water infrastructure, as highlighted by a recent survey from American Water. The results indicate how much there is to learn when it comes to education about our nation’s water systems.

Now more than ever, it is critical that the water and wastewater industry educates consumers and communities about the realities of the system that helps keep their lives flowing. Read on to explore some of the biggest areas, which according to our research, Americans still need education on, as well as how the industry can help customers better understand the situation.

The Size of Our Water Infrastructure System 

For most, our pipes are out of sight and out of mind. In fact, according to the research, nearly half (49%) of consumers believe underground pipes measure 1 million miles or less, and 30% estimate it was 500,000 miles or less. In reality, there are 2.2 million miles of pipe under the ground that make up our country’s water infrastructure. 

With all of this in mind, it is important to make your customer communications informational. Facts, such as the above, can help create a more informed consumer which, when faced with details about the state of our infrastructure and/or investment needs, will provide a better frame of reference. 

The Life Span of Our Aging Pipes 

According to the survey, Americans on average estimate the life span of underground pipes is 48 years. As we know, that is a conservative estimate, with the true-life span being anywhere from 75 to 100 years

More concerning findings came when respondents were asked about what factors most impacted water infrastructure. While 27% of all respondents (18 and over) are unaware of the ways that pipes degrade over time, the number increases to 44% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 that do not know that aging and time negatively impact the condition of our water infrastructure. These results show a large misunderstanding among the younger generation. 

It is important for consumers to be aware of where our country’s water infrastructure stands, especially as we share information that is needed to educate and move forward. By sharing these additional facts, such as in the content American Water created for the survey, and promoting it via bold graphics on social media, we can help bridge the gap between our concerns and theirs. 

The Cost of Water Infrastructure Maintenance & Advancement 

When factoring in the above knowledge gaps when it comes to size and state of our water infrastructure, it is probably not surprising to learn that not all Americans are aware of the cost involved for proper maintenance of our current infrastructure. According to the research, a majority of Americans (56%) estimate the cost of improving the nation's water infrastructure at $1 billion or less, rather than the currently projected $129 billion

While the average consumer is not totally aware of the intricacies of our water systems, they should have a general understanding of the investment gap between current funding and what’s needed to improve infrastructure – as well as what is at stake. One would this would be especially noted after the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a C- grade and wastewater infrastructure a D+ grade in 2021. It provides context to movements like the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and corporate investments, such as American Water’s commitment to invest $28 to $32 billion in capital over the next 10 years.

By providing this type of information with an eye on the future, it is a reminder that we are not interested in just maintaining infrastructure. Improving our country’s infrastructure will require considerable funding, but customers need to understand that it is an investment in their future. In the past, American Water has published content that shines a light on the future of infrastructure, while highlighting what is needed to get there.  

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How Pervasive Age-related Issues Are

Due to lack of exposure, the average American is not completely informed when it comes to the issues that occur as a result of aging infrastructure. For example, despite the fact that in the U.S. a water main break occurs every few minutes, approximately half (53%) of Americans estimate that a water main break occurs every couple of hours or less. A majority also estimate that leaks due to aging water infrastructure would cause gallons of drinking water loss per day to be somewhere in the millions, compared to the actual estimate of 6 billion.

It might be tempting to shy away from the issues that loom in the distance, but these issues have a significant impact on the future of accessing quality water and customers need to know about them. By increasing awareness around the aging water infrastructure, we can also increase awareness around the need for greater investment in the system. 

The External Threats to Our Water System 

The survey also found that Americans are not aware of all the potential threats to our water infrastructure. For example, more than three in five Americans are unaware that our water infrastructure is susceptible to cyberattacks and supply chain disruptions (64% and 62%, respectively). This type of information would provide consumers with critical context to the operations of water service providers across the country.

But there is a reason why most consumers are not aware of these threats: we are doing our job to protect them.

For example, at American Water, we invest money into having a dedicated team of certified professionals who help maintain the cybersecurity of our informational and operational technology systems; safeguard the physical security of our staff, facilities and assets; and provide emergency response and business continuity activities. We share this information with consumers as a reminder of how we are protecting these critical systems.  

The Negative Impact Consumers Can Have on the System

There are ways that consumers directly impact the state of our water infrastructure system, yet many are unaware of the damage they could be causing. According to the survey, many Americans so not know that flushing wipes and cotton products can damage wastewater infrastructure (45% and 43%, respectively). Moreover, 38% of Americans do not know that pouring cooking fats, oils and grease down the drain negatively impacts the condition of our sewer mains.

In the water and wastewater industry, we often have a line of communication with our consumers, and it should be utilized to educate them on the simple ways they can help support infrastructure. But even more so, we should make content that not only draws in customers, but also allows them to fully absorb the message.

Consider publishing content such as podcasts and blog posts to make tips for customers accessible, easy to absorb and engaging. On example could be teaching them how to treat the pipes better.

When you boil this all down, the call to action is clear: there is an opportunity to bridge the water infrastructure knowledge gap in the U.S. We owe it to ourselves, our systems and consumers to start these conversations and make this information both accessible and comprehensible. 

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