On tapping pride and laying pipe to the future of the water industry

The last couple of years in the U.S. water sector overall has seen a lot of discussion about drinking water—especially because of the problems in Flint, Michigan.

“An important place to start is this conversation is how well we actually do drinking water in America,” said Peter Grevatt, Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to an audience at the American Water Works Association’s annual conference. “And how much pride we should all have in the quality of the water we serve up across the states.”

“That may not be what’s in the nightly news,” he continued. “But that’s really what we see in the U.S.”

In shorter terms: We’re doing a good job. 90 percent of all the nation’s drinking water systems meet our EPA standards all the time, he added.

But where do we go from here?

Grevatt singled out opportunities to promote partnerships between water systems moving forward. And he stressed that. (One audience member post talk said he “lost count” on the number of times Grevatt used the word “partnership” in his presentation. “But it was over ten,” the utility executive added.)

“There’s a whole lot of talk across the U.S. about infrastructure, and about needed infrastructure upgrades,” Grevatt added to that partnership chatter, noting that the vast majority of that need in the water industry is the requirement to replace pipe.

Grevatt also talked about the push for investment in both infrastructure and operations of those systems. (In other words, just putting in new pipes and plants isn’t the only thing that needs financing, time and focus. Efficiency and experience in managing those plants and pipes are equally important for a future water industry that keeps that pride in what it does and what it offers customers flowing.)

In building that path forward with partnerships and investments, Grevatt stressed that utilities move forward with local, regional solutions—working together to solve problems that go across operations or across states. (If you have a problem, and your neighbor has the same problem, can you solve it together more efficiently?)

Of course, the concepts of working together and partnerships leads to lots of questions about rates and violations and what extra regulatory issues you may be taking on. But, Grevatt noted that those discussions are more than worth talking through to get to the positives of partnerships.

“When I look across the water sector, and I ask myself about the challenges that are a significant from a public standpoint, I would say many of these challenges come back to distribution—lead, for example,” he continued.

But, today, we’re focused on “how do we work together to solve the problem,” rather than ignoring it, he added. And that’s great progress. Another bit of industry progress to be really proud of. It’s the start of that partnership-filled industry future.

So, the groundwork is already laid for those needed partnerships on better infrastructure and better infrastructure management, but there’s a hurdle to get past. And it circles right back to Flint.

“There’s a gulf we have to jump between the actual safety of our drinking water and the actually safety of our drinking water. That gulf makes improvements like infrastructure investments difficult. All these conversations are predicated on a confidence, an investment that the public has in drinking water utilities. Not to tell the public they’re wrong, but explain what we do, why we’re important, why they should care,” Grevatt added.

It's time to show publicly that element of pride water utilities hold privately: that 90 percent of the U.S. flies past requirements (that majority that brings safe and healthy tap water to almost every American).

In other words, customers need to know it really is safe (and tasty) to drink from the tap in America—because it is.


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