By Nicholas DeBenedictis

Water. We take it for granted, expecting good-quality water to flow from our tap with 24/7 reliability. But real risks threaten the water service we all enjoy, and now is the time to address the problems facing the infrastructure that delivers this necessity of life to our homes and businesses.

The nation's water and sewer infrastructure is in serious disrepair. Globally, the picture looks even more frightening. A United Nations report last year warned of a water crisis. According to the U.N. research, more than half the human race will not have adequate access to clean water in 50 years. That's more than four billion people facing severe water shortages.

The U.N. study says waste and inadequate water management are the main culprits behind growing problems, particularly in poverty-ridden regions. Around the world - and even here in the United States - we are burdened by an inefficient, antiquated approach to how we manage water.

All of us in the water business would like to see - and encourage - consumers to use water more wisely. Water conservation is important for everyone's future. Perhaps if people better understood how precious water is, they'd be much more inclined to conserve.

There are more than 50,000 water systems across this country, including more than 2,000 community water systems in Pennsylvania and about 600 in New Jersey. With such a fragmented market, too many small, undercapitalized organizations - municipal and private - simply cannot keep up with the increasing cost to operate, maintain and upgrade their systems.

Much of this infrastructure was built immediately after World War II. And many of our older cities have plants and pipes that are 100 years old or more. The challenge is to keep pace with these exploding infrastructure needs, and that's going to be extremely expensive. Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency puts the cost at more than one quarter of a trillion dollars over the next 20 years.

These costs pose a huge problem for many municipally owned water systems, where there is little political will to raise the money - which typically means raising taxes - to repair or replace the infrastructure. Developing local political solutions takes time. Unfortunately, time is running out if we want to continue to enjoy good, clean, affordable water.

Local leaders might look to the state or federal government for funding, but, again, such "big government" solutions take time to work through the system. And would adequate resources be dedicated to address the mounting problems?

Keep in mind that a great deal of science, technology and expertise goes into treating water before it's clean enough to use. Furthermore, government regulations are expected to continue to tighten, ensuring the protection of our water resources from new environmental and security threats. Unfortunately, more regulation typically means increased costs, adding a greater financial burden on water utilities and cash-strapped municipalities.

As an investor-owned water and wastewater company, Aqua America Inc., my company, is all about the long-term stability of our systems. We bring economies of scale in how we operate and invest in these assets. To protect these investments, our company's capital spending for things such as pumps, treatment plants, wells and water mains in Pennsylvania averages about $150 million each year. And in New Jersey, our investment totaled $25 million between 2005 and 2006 - and we plan to spend $10 million in 2007 for system upgrades.

Of course, it's never pleasant to request rate increases to help pay for these capital improvements. However, when you compare the cost of water with other utility bills, it's still the best bargain around, less than a penny per gallon.

Given the severe problems facing our infrastructure, we need to make the tough decisions today. That means investing money in much-needed capital improvements and insisting on better water management. Let's not wait until the crisis is at our region's doorstep before the well - literally and figuratively - runs dry.

Nicholas DeBenedictis is chairman and chief executive officer of Aqua America Inc., the nation's largest U.S.-based, publicly traded water and wastewater utility holding company.