America's decrepit infrastructure is a timely topic in Washington these days, though elected officials typically focus on highways. About 11,000 water professionals are gathered in Philadelphia this week to make sure that water and wastewater systems, often invisible beneath the streets, move up on the public agenda.

"We have to continue to figure out how to tell our story," Carla A. Reid, general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in  Laurel, Md., told the annual conference of the American Water Works Association, whose three-day gathering opened Monday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Exhibition hall at the American Water Works Association's annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Exhibition hall at the American Water Works Association's annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

"You can hear people saying that we should be providing the water for free and rates shouldn't go up," Reid said, eliciting a knowing laugh from the audience during a panel discussion featuring three leaders of water systems that have undergone challenges. "We need to do a better job of selling what we do and why it's important,"

According to the association, about $1 trillion is needed over the next 25 years to meet demands and to maintain systems that now experience about 240,000 water-main breaks a year and waste more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card,  the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's water systems a grade of D.

Water utilities not only face the chronic issues of crumbling infrastructure, but also new concerns about cybersecurity attacks, an aging workforce, and urgent public pressure to remove lead pipes, many of which are in the lateral lines that connect customers to water mains.

And some systems, such as the Des Moines Water Works in Iowa, face legislative retribution because of efforts to curtail runoff pollution from industrial agriculture, said William Stowe, chief executive of the utility.

"We think even in a world in which science is being rejected by some of our political leaders, where climate change is denied, where the EPA is being rolled back … that we still represent an important issue for industry, and that's source-water protection," Stowe said.

Most U.S. water systems are still government-owned, but two of the nation's largest investor-owned water companies, American Water Works. Co. Inc. of Voorhees and Aqua America Inc. of Bryn Mawr, have headquarters in the Philadelphia area and are well-represented at the conference.

American Water has sent nine experts to make presentations and is opening its water-treatment plant and research lab in Delran for tours, said Mark LeChevallier, the company's vice president and chief environmental officer. He said American Water openly shares its research on new pipe materials, new tests to detect microbes, and new wastewater-treatment methods because one utility's misfortunes can spread a public fear that affects all utilities, as demonstrated by the woes of Flint, Mich.

"When Flint had a problem, it's a black eye on the entire water industry," LeChevallier said. "Our customers get concerned about that."