Thursday, March 16, 2017

A D in Drinking Water Infrastructure

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, grades the infrastructure in the United States, from water mains, sewer systems and plants, power lines connected to homes and businesses and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; the neighborhood streets and the national highway system, dams, rail roads, airports. The most recent report was released last week with an overall grade of D+ the same as in 2013.

America’s drinking water infrastructure received a grade of D, though the United States still has one of the safest water supplies on the planet. The United States uses 42 billion gallons of water a day to support daily life from cooking and bathing in homes to use in factories, power plant and offices across the country. Six billion of those gallons of water are lost due to leaking pipes. Across the nation, drinking water travels through over one million miles of pipes from water treatment plants to homes and businesses. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of about 80 years.

In total, there are approximately 155,000 public drinking water supply systems across the country. Most Americans (just under 300 million people) receive their drinking water from one of the nation’s 51,356 larger community water systems. The remainder receive drinking water from private wells or small supply systems. The larger community water systems have an average pipe replacement rate of 0.5% per year. That means that it will take an estimated 200 years to replace the system – more than double the useful life of the pipes.

While water prices are locally determined and are either directly or indirectly used to pay for treatment and delivery of water and maintenance of the system, it has been far too easy to overlook routine system maintenance of the water infrastructure. Part of the problem has been money. Users are charged by how much water they use, and municipal drinking water consumption in the United States has declined by 5% this decade and was flat for 20 years even as the miles of piping, connections and water treatment costs have risen.

Total freshwater use continues to decline in almost every sector of the economy including agriculture, industrial, domestic, and thermoelectric. This decrease in water use is attributed to increased efficiencies in domestic and commercial use (low flush toilets, water efficient appliances, etc.) and the retirement of coal-fired power plants which used tremendous amounts of water. Nonetheless, the expenses associated with water infrastructure have increased significantly as delivery areas expand and change and pipes and equipment reach their end of life. Every day, nearly six billion gallons of treated drinking water, over 14% of the total, are lost due to leaking pipes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are 240,000 water main breaks each year (the majority occur in the winter).

For the large part the water systems are only reacting to the latest service interruption –repairing pipes after they break. In addition, America’s drinking water infrastructure doesn’t stop at pipes, reservoirs, pump stations, and treatment plant upgrades; many threats to drinking water infrastructure can be attributed to the sources of drinking water, such as polluted water bodies, depleted aquifers, and inadequate storage. As watersheds continue to be impacted by shifting population migration, land use changes, consumption trends, and extreme weather, water infrastructure upgrades will be required to meet infrastructure demands in growing locations while the costs maintaining systems in areas of declining population and older systems are skyrocketing.

According to the American Water Works Association, upgrading existing water systems and to meeting the drinking water infrastructure needs of a growing population will require at least $1 trillion and we will need to change the way we think about our infrastructure. We need to replace and upgrade infrastructure before it fails. Ideally, pipe and infrastructure replacement occurs at the end of the average “useful life”; that is, the point in time when replacement or rehabilitation is less expensive than the costs of numerous unscheduled breaks and associated emergency repairs. Rather than waiting for a pipe or system to fail we need to plan for replacement.

The EPA offers some financial support to local governments and utilities in the form of loans through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans to state and local water infrastructure projects. Each state receiving an allotment must in turn match 20% of the funding. Since the program’s inception, $32.5 billion of low-interest loans have been allocated; however, with needs far surpass the program’s budget. In 2014, Congress authorized a new mechanism to fund primarily large water infrastructure projects over $20 million through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). In 2016 Congress appropriated $17 million in funds for the program. Overall, the bulk of water infrastructure funding will have to be paid for by the water users in higher water rates.

The quality of drinking water in the United States remains high, but a legacy of neglecting the infrastructure and emerging contaminants will force the price of water to reflect these costs.

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