Hop in Your Big Yellow Taxi – It’s Time to Discuss Water Resiliency!

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – September 9, 2016 – Comment

“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  Although this lyric appeared in Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” some 45 years ago, her conclusion has been reincarnated! You’ll find it woven throughout the reasons and recommendations put forth in the latest National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) report on water sector resilience.

The NIAC provides the President of the United States with advice on the security and resiliency of the critical infrastructure sectors (such as the national water sector) and their functional systems, physical assets, and cyber networks. As part of its duties, the Council advises Federal agencies that possess vital infrastructure responsibilities and makes recommendations for enhancing partnerships, implementing programs, etc. that will help bolster the security and resiliency of our nation’s infrastructures.

The most recent 2016 NIAC report on water sector resilience is packed with extraordinary insights into the poor state of our water system’s security and resiliency, that is, its “ability to recover quickly from misfortune.” These insights include identification of key issues in our water system’s resiliency, conclusions on how dire a state it is in, and opportunities for bettering the situation.

But for today, I choose to focus on just one powerful concept in the report: the threat to water sector resiliency that comes from the undervaluation of water. On the whole in this country, water service is reliable, inexpensive and an “out of sight, out of mind” resource for most users. Unless individuals, companies and local governments find themselves in an extreme situation – for example an earthquake that disrupts water mains or flooding that compromises major water sources – very few actually consider water at its true value.

One of the toughest challenges of human nature is for people to think in terms of “what if?” and to worry about, as well as prepare for, something bad that could happen. Harder yet is for people to think past the immediate impact on them – that is what they would do if they had no water in their home, workplace or school – and consider the cascading effect of a disruption in water service. The NIAC report demonstrates this in an eye-opening way with the graphic shown here (also on page 2 of the report). Consider a few of the survey results indicating how services would be compromised if water supply is disrupted:

  • Hospitals: service could degrade up to 99% in just 2 hours
  • Electricity generation plants as well as agriculture and food: service could degrade from 67%-99% in 4 hours
  • Banking and finance: could degrade 34%-66% in 4 hours

The NIAC report suggests a formula comprised of many contributions that can take the country toward a solution for overcoming this undervaluation problem, as well as other issues. These include aging infrastructure, lack of long-term investments for improvements, poor knowledge of at-risk areas and better networking of water systems to provide back-up systems to fall back on. The hope is that more of the nation will begin to understand the importance of water issues and act now – and not wait until the water “is gone” to realize what should have been done.