The management of water to provide a safe supply for domestic, industrial, commercial, and some agricultural use is supplied through facilities called waterworks, or water utilities. Although more than three-fourths of the U.S. population receives drinking water from large utilities, most systems are small. The water systems necessary to treat and pump water to consumers must meet the average daily water consumption rate that ranges from 380 to 950 liters (100 to 250 gallons) per person per day in populated areas.
Of the 168,000 public water systems in the United States, many are owned publicly and governed through a local government agency or water district board. All physical assets, employees, maintenance, billing, repairs, and customer service are the responsibility of the local government. As of 2002, only about 14 percent of water facilities in the United States were privately owned. Many private water systems are part of a larger business interest in which the delivery of water is incidental: often the water system is present solely to supply water to the business (e.g., campgrounds, mobile home parks, and shopping centers).
Although privatization of water services has long been an option for U.S. municipal governments, interest in privatizing water utilities grew substantially during the 1990s. Many water-supply officials have looked toward privatization as an option because of numerous concerns, such as:
- Years of neglected maintenance to water storage, treatment, and distribution systems;
- The need for greater compliance with more stringent water quality standards; and
- Growing technical complexities with the operations of water utilities.
Many arrangements are trending toward "public–private" partnerships in which the facilities are owned by the government, but private vendors provide water and wastewater management services under fixed, short-term contracts.
Responsibilities and Challenges
Because water is used for so many activities, the main challenge in water utility management is to balance the demands of commercial and business interests that seek cost-efficient and profitable operations, and the public's need for safe water that is affordable, reliable, and widely accessible. Supplying adequate and safe water to customers requires utility managers to exercise business skills such as:
- Managing the operation and maintenance of the waterworks system;
- Planning system upgrades and component replacement;
- Managing the financial and administrative aspects of the utility; and
- Complying with federal, state, and local regulatory requirements.
Protecting the infrastructure used to treat and transport water (including sources, treatment plants, and distribution systems) is an important step in ensuring the safety of drinking water. However, deterioration of water-supply infrastructure threatens the quality and reliability of water supplies. For example, water mains break in hundreds of thousands of locations each year in the United States, leaving water customers without a supply, or with a supply that is unsafe for consumption without special treatment (e.g., boiling or chlorination).
Purposeful contamination or disruption of the country's public water supplies has been a concern for many years. In response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and other professional organizations asked Congress for funding to improve water security and safety. Recommendations were in four primary areas:
- Preventing physical intrusion;
- Making security a priority for employees;
- Coordinating actions for effective emergency response; and
- Investing in security and infrastructure improvements.
Water utilities are continually reassessing security procedures in light of the fact that disruptions to the water supply are possible. Assessing the vulnerability of water systems to vandalism, sabotage, and terrorism is the goal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water security strategy. Funds have been made available as grants to large drinking-water systems (serving over 100,000 people). Guidelines are being made available to smaller systems, along with loans for security activities.
see also Conservation, Water; Demand Management; Drinking-Water Treatment; Hydroelectric Power; Infrastructure, Water-Supply; Pricing, Water; Privatization of Water Management; Reclamation and Reuse; Security and Water; Supplies, Protecting Public Drinking-Water; Supplies, Public and Domestic Water; Wastewater Treatment and Management.
William Arthur Atkins
American Water Works Association. Excellence in Action: Water Utility Management in the 21st Century. Denver, Colorado: AWWA, 2001.
Calonius, Erik. "The Privatization of Water" in Guidebook to Global Water Issues, ITT Industries. <http://itt.com/waterbook/privatization.asp>.
Drinking Water Security and Protecting Small Water Systems. National Environmental Services Center, National Drinking Water Clearinghouse. <http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/ndwc/ndwc_protect.htm>.
Security Resources. Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. <http://www.amwa.net/security/index.html>.
Water Infrastructure Security. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. <http://www.epa.gov/safewater/security/index.html>.