The True Cost of Clean Water

We usually pay about $50 a month for water. For that fifty dollars we get to take showers or turn on the faucet to get some clean water to drink. Sometimes I water our little vegetable garden. We clean our clothes and make ice. Seems like a really good deal to me.

Our water bill went up a lot in one month, a ridiculous amount in fact. So, i did some checking and sure enough we had a water leak in the pipe that feeds our house. I poked around a bit in the yard and started digging. Our house is 80 years old, so I was not particularly surprised to find an old rusty steel pipe leaking water.

Only one thing to do: call a plumber. We decided to just replace the whole pipe instead of trying to patch it.

A few days later they replaced the pipe. It took a whole day, 4 people working at various times, 2 really expensive pieces of equipment (a mini trackhoe and directional boring machine), 3 shovels, a blowtorch, two pex expanders, a copper pipe cutter, a bucket, concrete, a masonry drill, 2 pex cutters, 3 vans, 2 trailers, and miscellaneous parts. Oh, and a city inspector. All that just to put in a little bit of pipe that ran 50 or 60 feet. It cost me $2100. On a side note, we worked with Mullin Plumbing on this, the guys that were out working let me just sort of hang out with them all day while they worked, I learned a lot and they did a good job, and got it done quickly. I have no idea if that was a good price, but it seemed worth it to be done quickly and well.

This one little job of replacing a small pipe points to a huge infrastructure that we have to provide clean water. I live in Tulsa, a small city with a population of 400,000 people (the metro area is 900,000). Tulsa water treatment plants treat 100 millions gallons of water on an average day. Tulsa’s water system has capacity to treat 220 million gallons per day. Yellow pages lists 430 plumbing companies in the city. The city water department changes out 16,000 water meters a year.

All this infrastructure is kind of expensive. In fiscal year 2014 the City of Tulsa $15,425,000 on water system capital projects. The operating budget for providing water to the city was $112,040,000. That $15,000,000 in capital expenditures were not for big projects. Replacing or relocating water mains and facility improvements are the biggest things on the list.

Big water projects cost a lot of money. Chelssa, MI recently built a water treatment plant that treats .85 million gallons a day for $4,600,000. It would take 117 such plants to supply Tulsa with water on an average day. That is $538,200,000 just to build the plants. Keep in mind that this is Tulsa, a small city (the 45th largest city in the United States). New York City is in the middle of a $6 billion water project which started in 1970 and will not be done until 2020. Twenty three people have died working on the project. This country makes massive investments in water infrastructure, and arguably it is still not enough.

Our investment in water is more than a financial system. We have a culture that values and invests in clean water. When our water pipe broke it did not even cross our mind to not fix it. We did not decide to just go get water from the neighbors. We could have saved some money by just putting a faucet in the yard right next to the water meter and just carrying water into the house every now and then, but we did not consider that ether. In fact in some cities a house will be condemned if it does not have running water. Across the country the vast majority of houses have full plumbing and running water, although not all. Many households without water are from low income or minority groups. Im sure there are a few hippie off the grid types as well

We don’t have a constitutional right to clean water, but we do have an expectation of access to clean water. Tulsa’s water system is run by the city. Some cities have water systems which have been privatized. However, outside of rural settings there are few municipalities that don’t have some provision for providing water to it’s residents. Imagine if one day Tulsa announced that the water system would be shut down, and there was no private industry to take over . Everybody was on their own to find water. In time the market would produce some solution, but imagine the impact, Tulsa would cease to exist in its current form.

A hundred years of investment in infrastructure, culture, regulations, and expectations all come together so that I can pay $50 a month for all the clean water I can possible use, and when one old pipe broke I had massive resources to call on to fix it quickly. We didn’t even miss a shower.

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The True Cost of Clean Water”

  1. Great essay, Ben. I could see where portions of this could lead into an excellent discussion of the things that we take for granted here, but that are far beyond the reach of most communities in the areas where you and Beth have gone on your missions trips.

    By the way – I love your writing style. Your work has an easy, natural flow to it that is a joy to read.

    Like

    1. Thanks Troy. Writing is not a skill i feel particularly comfortable with, but i do enjoy trying to figure out how to make complicated ideas clear. I have a lot to learn!

      I am actually working on another version of this to put up over at http://www.kibogroup.org which will delve into the differences between our approach to water in the US and that of Uganda. I still have some research to do on that one, and i have to get some help from people who know more then me!

      Like

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