Water Supply of America is Becoming Unreliable

The city of Milwaukee is starting to figure out it has a great resource in its backyard – access to the fresh water of Lake Michigan.

The history of Milwaukee is a history of that plentiful water supply. Water-intensive businesses such as breweries and tanneries flourished here. They helped build this city on the shores of Lake Michigan. By the early 20th century, Milwaukee was the nation’s chief brewer. Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz – they all called Milwaukee home.

Things topped out in 1960, and since then, Milwaukee’s population has been in decline. The tanneries left. The big breweries are gone. What remains, though, is the water system. Pipes, tanks, pumping stations, treatment plants… Today, it runs at only a third of its capacity.

So the city plans to use this as a lure for so-called “wet businesses,” or businesses that use a lot of water. Come to Milwaukee and it’ll give you a break on water rates for up to five years. The city is not alone. Erie, Pa., has been offering Lake Erie water at 40% off for businesses that relocate there.

The fact that Milwaukee and Erie can do this at all tells you something about America’s water supply. It is – or is in the process of becoming – unreliable. I’ve written about this unfolding water crisis for years, and it always interests me. I think water will be one of the most important investment themes over the next decade, at least.

So when offered a spot at the Gabelli Water Investment Summit in New York, I duly took it. The folks at Gabelli do a good job of bringing together a dozen or so executives of water companies from around the country. It’s a worthwhile day, and I always learn something. I also can’t help but come away thinking bad thoughts about the way the US runs it water supply.

The most eye-opening presentation was by Nick DeBenedictis, the CEO of Aqua America, which is the second largest investor-owned water utility in the country. (It trades on the NYSE under the ticker WTR.)

He gave a good overview of the water utility industry. In a word, I’d have to say “messy” is an apt way to think of it. As DeBenedictis said, “You would never design it this way.” First, there are way too many systems. We have 55,000 water systems in this country. Second, most are too small, serving fewer than 3,000 people. The whole thing is inefficient, like trying to sled uphill.

But for whatever reasons, most people in this country think access to water is some kind of right and that we shouldn’t charge a market price for water. So market forces have not shaped the water industry as much as they might have. In the US, the government runs most of these systems. Only about 10% of the population gets its water from a private entity such as Aqua America.

In other parts of the world, the story is different. In England, 100% of the people get their water from private sources, and they have just 10 water systems. Even in France, 90% of the people get their water from private companies. In the US, we let government officials run amok. It was not always so. In 1850, about 80% of the country got its water from private companies. By 1900, it was 50%. So we’ve taken decades to get where we are today. Where we are today is an expensive place to be.

Summit Asset Management recently put out a white paper, The Case for Water Equity Investing 2010. (It’s available free on the Web and is well worth the read for the broad overview it gives.) In the paper, the authors sum up the damage. “In the US alone, the network of drinking water pipes extends almost a million miles – more than four times the length of the National Highway System. This aging infrastructure, much of which is more than 100 years old, has long exceeded its useful life and in many areas is in a state of utter disrepair.”

To fix it will cost at least $500 billion over the next 20 years. That’s a lot of new pipes, treatment plants, security upgrades and more. I bet it costs twice that. These projects always cost more when you start digging and pulling stuff out of the ground.

You would be appalled at the pictures of government-run water systems, which look like something out of the old Soviet Union. Dirty, old, rusted plants…water pipes filled with crud and buildup…little outhouse-like structures with no security that tap right into the drinking water supply…

“Cities around the country are playing the game of pay me later,” DeBenedictis says. “Leave it for the next mayor.” That’s always the problem. Who wants to be the politician to raise water rates to pay for needed repairs and maintenance?

And so the systems plunge deeper into decrepitude. The city does nothing until it has to. But the day of reckoning has arrived!

Chris Mayer
for Markets and Money

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer is a veteran of the banking industry, specifically in the area of corporate lending. A financial writer since 1998, Mr. Mayer's essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the Mises.org Daily Article series to here in Markets and Money. He is the editor of Mayer's Special Situations and Capital and Crisis - formerly the Fleet Street Letter.

Leave a Reply

3 Comments on "Water Supply of America is Becoming Unreliable"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
excellent capitalist viewpoint, assuming that the bushy-lite bonds don’t OD on the international marketplace, and leave the USA without any capital to bury the ancient aqueducts and build new cities that are equitable, clean and safe for all segments of society….. unfortunately, here in new hampshire (USA) both the public (50%) and private (50%) water wells tap in to the same aquifer. and unfortunately, the entire state is living on borrowed time. the levels of arsenic, lead, cobalt, and pharmaceutical wastes have reach an all time high [i work on the first recorded records in the early 1960’s] and frankly,… Read more »
The problems associated with water and water infrastructure nearly always get ignored until there is drought and cities nearly run out of water. I don’t know too much about the state of water delivery in the US, but here in Australia it differs from state to state. The one thing that is standard all over Australia is the requirement under COAG to make water service providers earn a rate of return on infrastructure and to charge prices that include the cost of upgrades. This takes a long time to do considering all the tinpot water authorities that have grown up… Read more »
Paul Murray
“I’ve written about this unfolding water crisis for years, and it always interests me. I think water will be one of the most important investment themes over the next decade, at least.” Call me a loony (you’re a loony!), but the big thing over the next few centuries or so will be utilities supplying “scrubbed” air to businesses, shopping malls, and the homes of the rich. Everyone else just live with the extra CO2 by breathing harder. As society declines into feudalism, an oxygen-rich atmosphere will do for the rich what a protein-rich diet used to do: the poor will… Read more »
Letters will be edited for clarity, punctuation, spelling and length. Abusive or off-topic comments will not be posted. We will not post all comments.
If you would prefer to email the editor, you can do so by sending an email to letters@marketsandmoney.com.au