Monday, June 10, 2013

The Cost to Maintain 24/7 Drinking Water in the United States

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the results of their 2011 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. The survey showed that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030 for systems to continue providing safe drinking water to 297 million Americans. The estimate only covers infrastructure needs that are eligible for, but not necessarily financed by, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). There are significant water system needs that are not eligible for DWSRF funding, such as raw water dams and reservoirs, water system expansions necessary for population growth, and water system operation and maintenance costs. These costs are not included in the EPA estimate, but do appear as part of the estimates of the American Water Works Association, AWWA, who estimated that the cost would be significantly higher than the EPA estimate.

Even after adjusting the estimates into 2011 dollars the EPA estimate for total national need has increased every few years. The infrastructure estimate was $227 billion in 1995, $225 billion in 1999, $375.9 billion in 2003 and $ 379.7 in 2007 (as adjusted to 2011 dollars). No progress has been made in the long term replacement and maintenance of our water infrastructure during the past 16 years and our water systems continue to age. EPA allocates DWSRF grants to states based on the finding of this assessment. These funds help states to provide low-cost financing to public water systems for infrastructure improvements necessary to protect public health and comply with drinking water regulations. Since its inception in 1997, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has provided about $15 billion in grants, though this is far from enough to maintain the operation of public water supplies that were built 50-100 years ago.

The EPA assessment shows that improvements are primarily needed in:
  • Distribution and transmission: $247.5 billion to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating water mains
  • Treatment: $72.5 billion to expand or rehabilitate infrastructure to reduce contamination
  • Storage: $39.5 billion to rehabilitate or cover finished water storage reservoirs
  • Source: $20.5 billion to construct or rehabilitate intake structures, wells and spring collectors
Maintaining the water distribution system of piping and pumps is the lion’s share of the costs. It is always in cities that report street closing due to sinkholes that formed from leaking pipes primarily because the urban systems are the oldest. However, it is the smallest systems that actually have the highest cost per person for pipe replacement because the residences are more spread out- there are more feet of pipe main per residence and the EPA’s data is believed to be weakest in that category.

We have barely thought twice about our water and have taken for granted the capital investment made by previous generations. The water bill that most pay barely covers the cost of delivering the water and some repairs and there seems to be significant resistance to increasing water bills to pay the true cost of water and the system to deliver that water. No infrastructure lasts forever and we have failed to properly maintain and plan for the orderly replacement of the water distribution systems. The water distribution systems in most of our big cities have reached the end of their useful life and water mains are failing at an ever increasing rate. As documented both by this survey and the AWWA, report: “Buried No Longer: Confronting America ’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” the need to replace or rebuild the pipe networks that deliver water comes on top of other water investment needs, such as the need to replace water treatment plants, upgrade treatment technology to respond to emerging contaminants in our raw water supplies, replace storage tanks and on-going monitoring and compliance costs.

According to the AWWA 2010 report, restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years in 2010 dollars, if we plan to maintain 24 hours per day on demand of water service for our country. The AWWA analysis includes investments that will be necessary to meet projected population growth, regional population shifts, and service area growth over that period. The EPA estimates that the twenty-year capital improvement needs for infrastructure investments necessary from 2011, through 2030, for the existing water systems to continue to provide safe drinking water to the public to be $384 billion assuming no growth in service area and no population shift. EPA’s “Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis,” actually estimated drinking water systems’ 20-year capital needs in the range $231 billion to $670 billion with a point estimate of $412 billion. The EPA costs exclude maintenance and replacement of dams and reservoirs because they are excluded from the EPA’s DWSRF funding. Neither estimate fully addresses the cost of infrastructure needs to to offset existing and anticipated drought conditions. In the past several years, water systems across the United States have been hit by drought and only a small number of water systems have plans to address drought impacts to existing customers that could not be addressed by conservation programs.

The United States has had one of the finest and safest drinking water supply systems in the world. To keep 42/7 on demand safe water , we need to invest in the system for our future.

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