Aging Water Infrastructure
Aging Water Infrastructure: A Hidden Danger
The definitive report on U.S. infrastructure illustrates the deep challenges the nation faces in upgrading its water and wastewater systems. The U.S. received an overall grade of “C-” on the 2021 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card. Wastewater and drinking water infrastructure scored a “D+” and a “C-,” respectively.
The ASCE defines a “D” grade as one that finds “the infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.”
Wastewater and Water Infrastructure Improvements
According to the report on Wastewater, nearly 240 million Americans–76% of the population–rely on the nation’s 14,748 treatment plants for wastewater sanitation. By 2032 it is expected that 56 million more people will connect to centralized treatment plants, rather than private septic systems – a 23% increase in demand. In the U.S., there are over 800,000 miles of public sewers and 500,000 miles of private lateral sewers connecting private property to public sewer lines.
The report on Drinking Water informs readers that drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country and that many of those pipes are coming to the end of their lifespan. Although the quality of drinking water in the United States remains high, legacy and emerging contaminants continue to require close attention. While water consumption is down, there are still an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. The report card cites the American Water Works Association estimate that approximately trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.
Funding Infrastructure Improvements
According to Michael S. Burke ’s article, The Infrastructure Gap: Financing and Funding the Future, there are many constraints on public-sector budgets which divert funds away from infrastructure development and maintenance. A significant example cited is unfunded pension liabilities. Additionally, a major source of public sector infrastructure funding, municipal bonds, has become less attractive to investors due to low interest rates. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are one source that, according to Burke, is widely used in U.K., Australia and Canada and expected to become more prevalent in the U.S. P3s are designed so the cost of the project is paid over the lifetime of the asset and costs are known up front. Private corporations earn a return on their investment through payments from ratepayers, such as in a water district, or they receive a portion of the higher taxes generated by improved infrastructure.
Aging infrastructure is one cause among several of the problem of non-revenue water (NRW). Utilities and municipalities must implement solutions to counteract the challenges created by NRW and its negative effects on water conservation and infrastructure. The issue tends not to be top of mind to the public, largely because the leakage and infrastructure damage contributing to NRW take place underground and go unnoticed. That is, until a major crisis–such as a water main break or drinking water contamination–occurs. NRW is a significant issue that needs to be addressed, as it can damage public infrastructure, raise utility bills and jeopardize public health.
Water Conservation and Water Loss
Aging infrastructure, such as leaky pipes and water mains, is estimated to result in the loss of 2.1 trillion gallons of treated drinking water in the U.S. each year. According to the EPA, the average household’s leaks can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year and ten percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day. Fixing easily corrected household water leaks can save homeowners about 10 percent on their water bills. EPA provides water loss training workshops to water utilities and collaborates with states to leverage Drinking Water State Revolving Funds-EPA’s largest funding source for drinking water infrastructure-for water loss control auditing.
Private Water Infrastructure
When a water line breaks, the homeowner is generally responsible for the portion of the line from the house to the water meter, called the “private side,” and the city is responsible for the portion of the line from the water meter to the water main, called the “public side”. When private-side service lines break, many homeowners call the city or utility first, then are surprised to learn that the city can’t help solve this expensive problem. Many cities have seen a steady increase in water infrastructure problems, and local officials are often contacted by residents with water and sewer line issues, which can cause a financial hardship. As a result, many cities are partnering with service line repair program providers to educate and protect homeowners. In addition to providing financial protection against expensive repairs, these programs provide access to vetted local contractors and 24/7/365 claims handling. These partnerships also often include royalties to the city that can be dedicated to public infrastructure upgrades.
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