In honor of Imagine a Day Without Water, we connected with Karen Cavett, SEH wastewater practice center leader, who shared her unique insight.
Without water, the gears of civilization would grind to a halt. Safety would be jeopardized. The world as we know it would change irreversibly. Yet, many of us take it for granted. We turn on the tap and cool, refreshing, clean water comes bubbling out.
That’s not the case everywhere.
As part of Imagine a Day Without Water, Karen Cavett, PE, reflects on life in and around water. Both in her professional life, as longtime water and wastewater professional of 25 years, and from her experiences living in Honduras, where she truly learned what it was like to live without water.
Here are three takeaways.
Our water infrastructure is the unsung crucial component to our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to cook, clean, fight fires, and simply put, live. The unsung heroes in this equation are the utility operators that make it all happen. They work behind the scenes, making sure our cities have clean water. Every day, all the time.
“You can’t have a city without water,” says Cavett. “Water operators are the backbone of the community.”
Managing our water infrastructure is a 24/7/365 job that doesn’t stop when the workday is done. Operators can be called in at any time, for any number of reasons. According to Cavett, in many cities, water operators wear several hats, moving from water plant operations to water tower maintenance to water main lines, and back again. In smaller towns, operators are typically also responsible for the wastewater treatment facilities and collection system, roadways and overall City maintenance.
“Many people don’t realize what it takes to provide clean, safe water,” Cavett says. “We take it for granted, we just turn on the tap, and water comes out.”
She should know.
After spending two-and-a-half years in Honduras on a Peace Corps assignment, Cavett experienced a world much different than ours.
According to water.org, 663 million people, 1 in 10 around the world, lack access to safe drinking water — that’s twice the population of the United States.
Where Cavett worked in Honduras, the majority of the water supply in the villages was from polluted rivers and streams. People there had little access to clean, safe drinking water and were willing to work for it, at any cost.
“Old people, young people, it didn’t matter,” Cavett said. “It was a community effort to get water to the villages.”
According to Cavett, countless hours of backbreaking work went into providing communities with safe drinking water. They hand dug through miles of mountainous terrain, manually laying water pipes and constructing break pressure and water storage tanks.
Every person in the community had a job, regardless of their age. The men, women and children of each family worked for hours swinging pick axes, carrying piping, concrete, sand and bricks up mountains to construct the water system. Those unable to do the strenuous work would provide fresh water and food to those working or provide areas to store materials and watch over it to ensure the materials were not stolen.
Cavett says people wanted water so badly they were willing to do any amount of work to get it.
“Situations like this around the world really bring our water infrastructure into perspective, and how lucky we are to have it,” she said.
When you turn on your faucet, there’s a lot more going on than just water coming out. Sure, it provides the liquid necessary for life, but there’s more to it than that.
“In the United States, when we turn on the water tap, we instantly receive safe, clean drinking water along with many other benefits. Many of our water treatment plants are designed to remove iron and manganese to prevent discoloration of fixtures in our homes and to our clothing. Some provide softened water requiring less soap and leaving one’s skin and hair feeling softer. Others remove unpleasant tastes and odors. These additional benefits are luxuries we take for granted,” Cavett said.
It’s a combined effort—starting with the United States Department of Health and continuing down to state and city governments—that ensures both the long-term health of our water supplies and our citizens.
Still, water comes with a price tag. But, when you consider that water allows us to live, this price tag is more than reasonable.
“Our water is really affordable for what we’re getting,” Cavett said. “Think about it. It’s something you need to live, and it’s so often taken for granted.”
In an era where the American Society of Engineers graded our nation’s water infrastructure a D, it’s important to think about what we can do to sustain this critical element of our society.
“These systems are being used all the time,” Cavett says. “There needs to be a constant investment in our water systems.”
Karen Cavett, PE, is the SEH wastewater team leader for Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota and an advocate for safe water access everywhere. Contact Karen