Add Water Systems to U.S. Infrastructure Challenges, Says New Report

April 14, 2010

New research compares urban markets in U.S. and overseas, urges changes in land development patterns

More and more urban areas throughout the United States--in both dry and rainy locales--are facing growing pressures on their water infrastructure systems, necessitating both greater investments for overhaul and a change in development patterns that are more conducive to conservation, according to “Infrastructure 2010: An Investment Imperative,” a new publication released by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and Ernst & Young.

Citing “water profligacy as an American way of life,” the report cautions: “Most water districts do not charge ratepayers full outlays for constructing and maintaining systems…As a result, businesses and households tend to use water inefficiently and don’t conserve, even though per-capita water demand could outstrip future availability in some parts of the country…We are starting to see the limits of where people can go (to live).”

The supply/demand conundrum, it notes, stretches from arid California, Colorado and Arizona to humid Georgia and Florida. The report shows that the U.S. has the highest “water footprint” in the world, using nearly 656,000 gal per capita annually, greatly outstripping far more populous China, which uses less than 186,000 gal per capita annually.

The integration of more concentrated land development into water management can reduce runoff and combat waste, states the report. One example: the runoff from eight homes on 8 acres totals 149,600 cu ft per year, while the runoff from eight homes on 1 acre totals 39,600 cu ft per year, with the denser development saving both water and land.

“Changing growth patterns in response to dwindling resources will not come easy to a nation that is not accustomed to conserving water or land,” said ULI Executive Vice President Maureen McAvey. “But it’s clear that regional and local problems with both water quantity and quality will continue without a broad-based cutback in public water consumption and a change in how and where we build. Water infrastructure must be viewed through the lens of sustainable growth.”

“Over the past several years that we have been co-producing this report, perhaps the most troubling conclusion overall is that the world is moving ahead in rebuilding and expanding its infrastructure without the United States. Bottom line, the U.S. is seriously threatening not only its quality of life now and for the future, but also its very basic ability to compete economically with the rest of the world,” said Howard Roth, global real estate leader, Ernst and Young.

The report points out that according to the World Bank, 80 countries have water shortages that threaten health and economies, and 40% of the world has no access to clean water or sanitation. Water supply cannot keep pace with demand as populations increase--creating an acute problem in America and worldwide.

“Infrastructure 2010” is the fourth of an annual overview series that analyzes the infrastructure needs and compares the infrastructure policies of the United States with other countries. Previous editions focused primarily on transportation systems, consistently finding that the U.S. continues to lag behind Asia and Europe in investments in transit systems, making its urban areas less competitive globally.

This year, in addition to a transportation update, the report includes a look at water infrastructure--accessibility and availability, treatment and delivery--and highlights water issues in 14 U.S. cities as illustrative of the problems looming throughout much of urban America. The cities are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Together, these cities and surrounding metropolitan areas are expected to gain an additional 60 million residents between now and 2030, reinforcing the critical need to better coordinate land use planning with water availability.

Source: Urban Land Institute

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