This question has been asked a couple times on on-line discussion groups. It usually results in a short list of answers. The number one answer is usually getting a handle on failing infrastructure. The US built fantastic infrastructure systems that allowed our economy to grow and use to be productive, but like all tools and equipment, it degrades, or wears out with time. In addition, newer infrastructure is more efficient and works better. In many ways we are victims of our own success. People have grown used to the fact that water is abundant, cheap, and safe. Open the tap and here it comes. Flush the toilet and there it goes, without a thought as to what is involved to produce, treat and distribute potable water as well as to collect, treat, and discharge wastewater. Looking to the future, we should take education as one of our challenges. Our economy and out way of life requires access to high quality water and waste water. So this will continue to be critical. But utilities have not been proactive in explaining the condition of buried infrastructure in particular, and need more data. The same goes for roadways and many buildings.
Cities are sitting on crumbling systems that have suffered from lack of adequate funding to consistently maintain and upgrade. In part this is because some believe that clean drinking water is a right instead of a privilege to be paid for. We gladly pay hundreds of dollars per month for cable television and cell phones, but scream at the costs for water delivered to out tap. The discussion usually continues along the lines of utilities are funding at less than half the level needed to meet the 30 year demands while relying on the federal government, which is trying to get out of funding for infrastructure for local utilities. Utilities are a local issue which is some ways makes this easier. Our local leaders to send help with the education (after we educate them), send less money going to the general funds and more retained by utilities.
Perhaps where we have failed is in educating the public. Public agencies are almost always reactive, as opposed to pro-active, which is why we continuously end up in defensive positions and at the lower end of the spending priorities. So we keep deferring needed maintenance. The life cycle analysis concepts used in business would help. A 20 year old truck, pump, backhoe, etc just aren’t cost effective to operate and maintain. We are not very successful at getting this point across.
Money is an issue, and will always be, but the fact that local officials are not stressed about infrastructure is in part because utility personnel are very good at our jobs, minimizing disruptions and keeping the public safe. We are not “squeaky wheels” and we don’t market our product at all. Afterall, is cable or your phone really more valuable that water and sewer?