A day without water means you wake up, turn on the tap to brush your teeth, and no water comes out. There is no morning cup of coffee. When you flush the toilet, nothing happens. Firefighters have no water to put out fires; farmers are unable to water their crops; sanitation at medical facilities could be compromised. A single nationwide day without water service would put $43.5 billion of economic activity at risk. In just eight days, a national water service stoppage would put nearly 2 million jobs in jeopardy.

When you stop and think about it, a day without water is nothing short of a crisis in all respects. That is why the Portland Water District joined other water utilities and community leaders Thursday to participate in the third annual “Imagine a Day Without Water,” a nationwide day of education and advocacy about the value of water.

Across the country, communities struggle with water shortages, pollution and inadequate infrastructure. Water issues abound from man-made tragedies in Flint, Michigan, water scarcity issues in central California and farm and wastewater runoff in the Midwest. In 1993, in my former hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 400,000 people became ill and over 50 died when the parasite Cryptosporidium passed through the treatment plant and into the drinking water supply. That waterborne disease outbreak turned the drinking water industry on its head and led to improvements to protect public health.

Working for Milwaukee Water Works between 1995 and 2017, I saw firsthand the impacts this event would have as it led to an immediate and unprecedented $89 million investment in infrastructure in Milwaukee.

The challenges that face our drinking water and wastewater systems are complex and multi-faceted. But common across the nation, infrastructure is aging and in need of investments.

The good news is that Americans believe water infrastructure investment is a priority, with 82 percent of voters saying that they view the issue as either important or very important.

Here at the Portland Water District, we think good, clean water means everything! Actions supporting that statement start at the source, Sebago Lake, with watershed protection activities and a state-of-the-art drinking water treatment facility. It continues with the upkeep of nearly 1,000 miles of distribution main and 17 pumping and storage facilities which deliver the clean, healthy water to your homes and businesses. But it does not stop there. A complex system of wastewater pumping stations, sewers, and treatment plants collect and remove pollution before the cleaned water is returned to the Presumpscot River and Casco Bay.

Regular updates and maintenance are required to ensure proper functioning systems that deliver clean water. That’s why we invest approximately $20 million each year to upgrade infrastructure, $7 million of which is dedicated to water main replacements. While we have conducted a comprehensive water main replacement program since 1985, the amount we invest each year has steadily risen from $2.5 million in 2011 to $7 million today in order to maintain water quality and reliability of service. This level of investment allows us to replace roughly 5 miles of pipe annually. Ideally, it is recommended that distribution systems are replaced at a rate of 1 percent a year, which would equate to 10 miles locally. Balancing affordability and investments is part of the planning process and why the Portland Water District implements modest water rate increases annually.

Investments have paid off – our drinking water quality is exceptional, water main breaks have declined and are well below national averages, the wastewater collection system is improving and the performance of the wastewater treatment plants is benefiting from system renewals and process enhancements.

Yes, you’ll get a bill from us once a month. An average residential household of four people receives a month’s worth of clean, cold tap water for under $30, approximately two-thirds less than the average American’s cable bill.

Americans rate water service as their most important monthly expense, above electricity, heat and phone, yet it is one of the cheapest and most overlooked, accounting for only 12 percent (water and wastewater) of monthly expenses, compared to 33 percent for telephone and 37 percent for electricity. The revenue generated from water and sewer bills goes toward investments in infrastructure and the operations that keep “a day without water” as a distant thought.

— Special to the Press Herald