There are more than 300 million people living in the U.S., and each person uses an average of 100 gallons of water every day. That water must be brought to us, and it must be taken away.

These are sobering facts I learned from an interesting documentary on PBS, “Liquid Assets: The Story of our Water Infrastructure.” Just 100 years ago it was difficult for people to imagine turning on the tap and getting clean water. Today, that is an expectation.

Water infrastructure is a modern engineering marvel. But because it is buried, we often take it for granted. The documentary explains that roads cave in and bridges fall apart so the concern is that the infrastructure that cannot be seen is also falling apart. It is old and has not been upgraded, replaced or fixed. Experts predict that by 2020, 85 percent of our current infrastructure will have reached the end of its useful life.

Our water infrastructure is vital for disease protection, fire protection, basic sanitation, economic development and for our quality of life. The documentary claims that we have about two million miles of pipe in this nation – an infrastructure that our great grandparents installed and one that has basically been unchanged since.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a push to build wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. to protect public health. Today, with evolving technology, the waste travels through multiple stages of treatment removing tons of solids, settling out microscopic particles and introducing bacteria that consume and decompose the toxic materials.

In population centers like Los Angeles, the scope of this task is staggering. The Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant serves four million people, processes 350 million gallons of sewage and removes 500 tons of solids daily. What happens if the infrastructure that protects the clean water coming in and transports the waste back out deteriorates?

Shirley Franklin, Mayor of Atlanta and diligent advocate of repairing the city's water works, says, “You don't put a roof on a house one time. You don't fix the plumbing one time. You don't get your hair done one time. If we don't continue to invest in repairing our infrastructure for the next 20 years, we'll find ourselves back at the same point when we didn't have direct access to clean water. If we don't protect our water, we will be without water. We will be without industry . . . we will be without jobs . . . we will be without a healthy economy. And our people will be sick. So, we don't really have a choice.”

So what is being done about this critical issue? The first obstacle is the funding gap. Our original infrastructure was built on government subsidies. While municipalities are responsible for maintaining systems and source supply, the standards that protect water are established at the federal level. The next obstacle is the daunting task of repairing and replacing these complex systems.

Let us know what you think about our country's aging infrastructure and look for continued coverage on this topic in Pumps & Systems in 2009.