Water vital to economic development, utility rep tells chamber event

Recent drought conditions across Missouri have magnified the importance of water in the state, but according to Traci Lichtenberg clean water has always been a major aspect of economic development.

Lichtenberg is the environmental compliance manager for Missouri American Water, a water utility with more than 6,900 miles of water pipes in Missouri. Lichtenberg believes communities need to understand the importance of a clean water supply and invest in necessary infrastructure accordingly.

“We need to start to become aware of how water touches our lives and how we are investing in it,” Lichtenberg said. “We need to make sure that the investments we’re making in water really reflect how valuable it is.”

Lichtenberg gave a talk about clean water’s impact on economic development at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Energy and Environment Conference on Thursday in Columbia. Justin Arnold, general counsel for the chamber, said the chamber wanted to focus on the topic to highlight the importance of infrastructure on a community’s ability to compete economically.

“I think part of what we hoped to highlight in the conference was the importance of modern, efficient and an adequate water supply and wastewater treatment system to a community,” Arnold said. “From our members’ standpoint, if they’re looking to locate in a community that does not have sufficient water and wastewater treatment, then they will not be able to operate their businesses there.”

According to Lichtenberg, a clean water supply is important for a company’s bottom line.

“In business, it does come down to cost. You need to make sure that you are making financially responsible decisions,” Lichtenberg said. “You have to have water for your business, and that quality needs to be great. If it’s not, you’re going to have to invest a lot of money in infrastructure and treatment that you wouldn’t otherwise have to.”

Lichtenberg believes that water shortages are bad for a community’s economic development. She said that businesses view things like mandatory water conservation orders as red flags.

“Let’s say you have a new business that’s coming into a community,” Lichtenberg said. “One of the questions they are going to ask these different communities is: within the last five years, have you ever been under a mandatory water conservation order?”

Lichtenberg argues that a major part of economic development for a community is steady access to clean water. Missouri recently approved construction of a 2,352-acre reservoir near Milan that will supply water to 10 counties in north-central Missouri.

“I know that there are communities who are concerned that they are not going to have enough water supply and they’re working on emergency plans currently,” Lichtenberg said. “Anecdotally, I know that there are some different sources of supply they are looking at. With any water utility, you have a certain amount of loss. So, some utilities are also focusing on stopping water loss.”

Aging water infrastructure is in need of repair across the state, Lichtenberg said. Missouri American Water experienced 1,200 main breaks this past December in St. Louis County alone.

Water utility companies must attack these defections head-on to avoid maximum economic damage to themselves and the surrounding community, Lichtenberg said, noting that Missouri American Water invests $80 to $130 million each year back into infrastructure.

“Investment in infrastructure, investment in capital and investment in water quality processes are really the better investments for the long term,” she said. “A main break can end up costing 10 times as much as proactively replacing a line.”

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