Smarter water? Don't start celebrating just yet




By Neil Strother

Navigant Research


There are positive signs we are getting smarter about water - though no need to celebrate just yet as these latest moves are more incremental than transformational.


First, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently released a report upgrading the U.S. drinking water infrastructure to a grade of D from a D-, the grade handed out by this group in 2009.  As the new report noted, "Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.  There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.  Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion.” 


The ASCE report also said "the quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.”  So, for now the water is safe, but the pipes need upgrading sooner than later (a D is still barely a passing grade), and it’s going to require some serious capital investment. 

Third, a group of diverse organizations and businesses has come together to set tough performance standards to protect water in the process of fracking.  The Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) aims to ensure an environmentally safe process as shale gas is mined in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Basin.  CSSD’s founding members are: Chevron, Clean Air Task Force, CONSOL Energy, Environmental Defense Fund, EQT Corporation, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), Heinz Endowments, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Shell, and William Penn Foundation.  That’s an impressive and varied group, to be sure.


The key areas addressed by CSSD in terms of surface and groundwater include: maximizing water recycling, development of groundwater protection plans, closed-loop drilling, well casing design, groundwater monitoring, wastewater disposal, impoundment integrity, and reduced toxicity fracturing fluid.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have slammed the formation of CSSD, describing the performance standards as "akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”  That’s harsh.


By themselves, each of these developments holds a glimmer of positive light.  Water infrastructure is slightly better.  Some political leaders see the need to help fund water infrastructure upgrades in the near term.  And a disparate group of organizations has agreed on a framework for protecting water in the fracking process.  Combined, they inspire confidence in our ability to be smarter in our use of water.  Yet each of these solutions seems somewhat narrow (U.S.-focused only), and not overly bold.  It’s better than going backward, I suppose, but more action is needed.


Neil Strother is a senior research analyst contributing to the Navigant Research Smart Grid practice, with a focus on smart metering technologies and related business practices.


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