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Throughout America, aging pipes and antiquated water systems are wasting billions of gallons of water per day, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to building sustainable cities. 

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Photo: Creative Commons

In a report released in 2013, The Case for Fixing the Leaks, CNT surveyed water service providers throughout the Great Lakes states and found that their 63,000 miles of water pipes leak an estimated 66.5 billion gallons of water per year. At present, the water sector has no universal auditing practices in place, which makes it difficult to calculate the true extent of water loss. But, writes CNT, “leakage, metering inaccuracies, data handling errors, and unauthorized consumption” are estimated to lose America 14 to 18 percent of its water.

“That is approximately 5.9 billion gallons of expensive, treated water each day,” says the report, “or 2.1 trillion gallons lost annually in the U.S.”

That water has become even more expensive over time. Between 1996 and 2010, water services costs spiked by almost 90 percent.

“When I travel around the Great Lakes states and across the country, I often hear the argument that it will cost too much to fix the leaks and make other infrastructure improvements,” said Danielle Gallet, CNT’s Water Supply Program Manager and Infrastructure Strategist. “To which I reply, ‘How much is it costing us to do nothing?’ We need to better understand what our water loss conditions actually are. Establishing universal auditing and standards across water utilities is a critical, and low-cost, first step.”

To save money in the long run, CNT recommends that water service providers implement new auditing methods, leak detection monitoring, targeted repairs or upgrades, pressure management and better metering technologies. Though significant investment would be required, CNT calculates that these infrastructure upgrades would create “40 percent more jobs than across-the-board tax cuts, and over five times more jobs than temporary business tax cuts.”

“The infrastructure and the massive investment that our grandparents, great-grandparents, some of us our great-great-grandparents put in, is coming to the end of its useful life, and the bill has come due on our watch,” Gallet told NPR.

David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, estimates that nationwide retooling would cost $1 trillion. “About half of that trillion dollars will be to replace existing infrastructure,” said LaFrance. “The other half will be putting into the ground new infrastructure to serve population growth and areas that currently aren’t receiving water.”

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