With a burgeoning population and aging water systems, Florida will need $16.5 billion in funding over the next 20 years just to maintain its existing drinking water infrastructure, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In most places across the country, the promise of clean, cheap, readily available water has been taken for granted, but that has begun to change. Farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, and the aging underground networks of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses rupture all too frequently. Just as with crumbling bridges or congested highways, the solutions don't come cheap.
Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion nationwide over the next quarter century. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.
Despite the need, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation's drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts. That is largely because of poor management by some states and structural problems.
But the data show Florida has been successful where others have failed, spending most of the nearly $615 million it has received on improving water infrastructure in both densely populated and rural areas.
Still, the billions needed to fix the state's old water system presents a major funding and logistical challenge moving forward, one the state says it is addressing.
"We have communities in Florida with 100-year-old pipes still. Old pipes cost more to repair now, and it's got to be done over many years. It's a real headache," said Tom Friedrich, a Jacksonville-based water infrastructure expert who consults with local governments.
In addition to funding projects like water treatment facilities in densely populated areas throughout the state, Florida water officials say they use the EPA's grants to fund the Florida Rural Water Association, which gives technical support to smaller communities.
While the law allows Florida to set aside up to 31 percent of its funding for noninfrastructure projects related to drinking water, the records show the state has set aside less than 10 percent. That indicates that, unlike many other states, Florida is moving forward to fix problems more efficiently.
"Program staff is dedicated to helping local communities through our funding and application process," Dee Ann Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, said in an emailed statement. "In addition, we work hard through the legislative process and through building relationships with local governments to better leverage funding opportunities."
Miller said Florida will also use money from existing loans, interest paid and Clean Water Act grants.
All of this action on water infrastructure is spurred by an intense need: Florida has long relied on groundwater to fill its cup, but as the state has grown to the nation's third-most populous, that source is dwindling.
"As communities continue to grow, the DEP shows that by 2025 we'll need an additional 2 billion gallons a day," Friedrich said.