Pricing, promotion, and shared resources: water infrastructure


As mentioned in a recent article from the Center for American Progress, U.S. infrastructure for wastewater and stormwater needs at least $298 billion in repairs, maintenance, and upgrades before 2030.

(Terminology: Wastewater is discharged after use in hygiene, manufacturing, food preparation, and other human activities. Stormwater is runoff that is polluted through contact with trash, chemicals, animal waste, and other hazards.)

Less than 2 percent of this needed spending is for the distribution system for treated, or recycled, water. Water is the ultimate recycled product. We don’t “manufacture” new water. Fresh water is actually fairly scarce on a global scale, and the desalination of sea water is expensive and energy-intensive. Used water is treated, through both environmental and man-made systems, and consumed again. The water you drink this month could well be the water you drank last month.

This is in part a pricing problem. Water is a fundamental public service, even in the smallest communities. Most often, it’s often paid for through local funding such as municipal bonds and user fees. Many communities don’t charge enough in fees to cover all the services that they need to provide.

As the Center for American Progress article states, “In many cases, local residents are simply not able to cover the cost of repairing or upgrading old facilities through monthly fees. In many communities, water bills only cover drinking water and sewer services, leaving stormwater management critically underfunded.”

The Center for American Progress calls for more federal financing, investment, and public works to improve our wastewater and stormwater systems. Undoubtedly that’s part of the solution. But can innovations in pricing, one of the pillars of marketing, help improve water infrastructure funding and maybe other water problems such as inefficiency and pollution?

  • Measuring sewer discharge quantities more accurately and charging by amount discharged (Right now, many people pay a flat rate for monthly sewer service).
  • Measuring sewer discharge quality more accurately and charging more for more polluted wastewater (Cleaner discharge costs less to treat).
  • Assessing stormwater fees on a per square foot basis, with discounts for beneficial improvement to landscaping, water retention, and water recycling.
  • Charging more for luxury uses of water, such as swimming pools, hot tubs, and sprinkler systems, than for basic uses of water like cooking, bathing, and laundry.
  • Offering water efficiency rebates for the installation of grey water systems, similar to energy efficiency rebates for installation of solar panels, efficient appliances, and upgraded windows.

This is also in part of promotional problem. Many people don’t have an accurate picture of how much water they consume, or how efficient / inefficient their water consumption might be.

  • Create a “Water Star” program to match the successful Energy Star program could help change water consumption behavior.
  • Establish and promote metrics for someone’s “water footprint” to match their “carbon footprint” from energy consumption

We can grow our cities and our roads, but we can’t just grow another river or lake. We need to invest in the infrastructure and management of our water supply, and marketing can help generate those investment funds.

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