In Massachusetts, where some water and sewer systems in older cities date back to the 1800s, experts predict billions of dollars will be needed in the coming years to ensure that clean drinking water continues to flow.
"The idea that people will pay more per month for cellphone service than they pay for their water and sewer, and that they get more aggravated by the water and sewer costs is a mindset we have to work to correct," says Steve McCurdy, director of municipal services for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "People will think they can't live without a cellphone, but they definitely cannot live without clean water."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its most recent projection, said it would cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation's existing drinking water infrastructure. For Massachusetts, the EPA estimated the need at about $7.7 billion, including $5.6 billion to maintain the transmission and distribution network.
Other estimates are higher: A 2012 report from the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, created by the state Legislature, found Massachusetts "conservatively" faced a $10.2 billion gap in resources for drinking water over a two-decade period, along with an $11.2 billion gap in resources for wastewater projects.
Aging water systems suffered "from a lack of investment, delayed maintenance and insufficient resources," the report said. Hundreds of miles of pipeline to homes are in service beyond their useful life, leading to underground leaks and water main breaks that can affect single neighborhoods or entire regions.
In 2010, a 10-foot-wide transmission line burst in Weston, spilling millions of gallons into the Charles River and forcing about 2 million Boston-area residents to boil their drinking water for several days. This past May, a state of emergency was declared in Brockton after a century-old, 24-inch water main buckled, forcing some businesses to close and hospitals to reschedule elective procedures.
Yet in many communities, officials say, water and sewer assessments fall far short of covering the full costs for delivering clean drinking water, and rarely pay for capital improvement plans for infrastructure.
"We're talking about things that are often underground, out of sight and out of mind, and are difficult to raise money for," said Becky Smith, campaigns director for the advocacy group Massachusetts Clean Water Action.
According to a 2014 survey by Tighe & Bond, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, annual water costs in Massachusetts ranged from as low as $112 to as high as $1,566, with a statewide average of $532 per customer. The survey also showed the average rate had nearly doubled since 2000.
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides on average 215 million gallons of water a day to some 2.5 million greater Boston residents, initially asked ratepayers for an average 4.1 percent increase before settling on a 3.4 percent hike. The MWRA, which oversaw a historic $3.8 billion cleanup of Boston Harbor, says 60 percent of its $702 million budget this year will go toward debt.
"Municipalities are always trying to spend their money in ways that keep their systems from crumbling," said Smith, who served on the state commission. "But they are (facing) greater and greater tasks."
Among those challenges is keeping up with potential contaminants, such as new chemicals that are being used in household products that after disposal can cycle back into drinking water supplies, she said.
Despite significant needs, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation's drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, according to a review by The Associated Press. That's largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.
Massachusetts has been allocated $478 million in federal grants from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund through 2015 and recently appears to be doing a better job than many states of utilizing the funds. The percentage of grants left unspent has fallen from 6 percent in 2011 to 2.4 percent this year.
Unlike many western states, Massachusetts and other Northeast states enjoy plentiful rainfall and rarely experience drought, adding to complacency about water infrastructure and resistance to rate hikes.
"It is infrastructure that needs to be maintained and nothing you maintain is free," said McCurdy.