Graphic Realism

Organization of U.S. drinking water utilities in a few simple figures

Here are some graphs that convey ​a few key things about the organization of drinking water utilities in the United States​.*

​Source: EPA SDWIS

​There's a lot of important information ​in those graphs, but these are the most important for policymaking purposes:

  1. Fragmentation. There are nearly 50,000 community water systems in the United States, an order of magnitude more than electrical and gas utilities combined.
  2. Ownership & governance. The overwhelming majority of Americans (84%) get their drinking water service from local government utilities, rather than investor-owned utilities. This proportion is opposite from the energy sector, where investor-owned firms ​hold the lion's share of the market.
  3. Size. The distribution of systems is highly skewed in size: over half of American community water systems are very small, serving populations of less than 500​; the largest 434 systems serve nearly half of the U.S. population.

These three realities inform virtually every aspect of water system management, operations, finance, and regulation. Any successful effort to improve or reform American drinking water utilities must account for the political and administrative challenges that these realities present.

Organizations are human creations, so we can change them if we want to. But we can’t ignore them.



*Feel free to copy and use; please link to this ​page. 

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