Dark water rising

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave both the country’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D. Experts weigh in on what it will take to improve that grade and fix America's water infrastructure systems.

Buried underneath America’s homes, businesses and schools there’s a problem steadily growing. It threatens our economy, our safety and our way of life. The problem is mounting, there are few actively working to solve it, and in many cases, we don’t know where it is until something goes wrong. 

There are nearly 170,000 public drinking water systems, 14,780 wastewater treatment facilities and 19,740 wastewater pipe systems crisscrossing the American landscape. However, this infrastructure is aging, deteriorating, crumbling – and if immediate action isn’t taken, the results could be catastrophic.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave both the country’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D. The organization estimates that it will take nearly $300 billion in capital investment over the next 20 years to get waste and stormwater systems up to date, while the cost of replacing every drinking water pipe past its useful life in this country could well exceed $1 trillion.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave both the country’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D. The organization estimates that it will take nearly $300 billion in capital investment over the next 20 years to get waste and stormwater systems up to date, while the cost of replacing every drinking water pipe past its useful life in this country could well exceed $1 trillion.


Water infrastructure is a huge collective term, and refers to everything from underground water mains to wastewater treatment plants and everything in between; however, Greg DiLoreto, former ASCE president, says, generally speaking, the biggest budgetary shortfall is in maintaining the country’s underground network of pipes, many of which are over a century old or more.  Washington D.C.’s system, for example, was installed shortly after the Civil War, he says.

“There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year here in the United States,” DiLoreto says, adding, “quite frankly, there’s not enough revenue to do what needs to be done to bring that drinking water infrastructure to a grade of B, which would be good condition.”

And this isn’t a new problem. Investment in America’s water infrastructure has lagged for decades. “We had a great boom in the post-war era of building up our infrastructure,” says Tracy Mehan, executive director of governmental affairs at the American Water Works Association. “But we’ve not continued investing in it to maintain it.”

If these systems are not maintained, it could result in catastrophic consequences. Costly and wasteful main breaks will become the norm, and the reliability of our nation’s water supply will quickly deteriorate. Experts agree that not addressing the problem would spell disaster for the economy and way of life. So, why then is little being done to solve the problem?

One contributing factor is that water in America is unrealistically inexpensive. By and large, the revenue governments receive from water services is from the rate payers; however, they only pay half of what most pay for water in developed countries in Europe, says Mehan. And DiLoreto agrees. Water is incredibly cheap when compared to any other service that comes into the average American home, such as cable TV, broadband Internet or cellphone service.

Consumers tend to take their water for granted, Mehan says. He argues that this may be because of an attitude most Americans have regarding water – they view it as a right, rather than a service, he says. “At the end of the day, someone has to pay for the distribution systems, the treatment works, and all the other things that make water potable,” he says. Citizens lose sight of the fact that water isn’t a simple commodity. “What we’re selling, if you can use that term,” he adds, “is a very sophisticated, highly engineered capital-intensive service.”

The question, Mehan says, comes down to who will end up paying for it. “More and more, we’re going to be looking to rate payers to shoulder the responsibility, which will, of course, be controversial and will also raise some serious questions about affordability,” he says. “Rates will continue to go up.” 

Which leads to a major issue. It is, of course, politically unpopular to raise rates. “Politics has something to do with it,” Mehan explains, “and I don’t mean politics in the partisan sense.” Most water systems are municipally based, and he explains that going to a mayor or council to talk about potential rate hikes can be a fraught conversation, and not always purely a business decision.  “The electoral cycle sometimes intrudes into these decisions and can create barriers,” he says.

The second issue is more tangible. DiLoreto adds that visibility is a major contributing factor. “Unfortunately, until it breaks, we as consumers don’t really think about it,” he says. “We turn on the tap and water comes out, clean to drink, in every faucet in our house. We just don’t think about it until we get a notice from the utility that says the water system will be down because we have a broken pipe.”


One of the first ways proactive communities can work to make their water systems more reliable is by adopting a meaningful asset management program, DiLoreto says. Intimately understanding the system, knowing where problems may occur and engaging in regularly scheduled preventative maintenance can greatly reduce risks, he says. “Instead of waiting until the pipe breaks, maybe we get in there sooner.” New technologies and computerized asset management systems, he says, have made this process more efficient.

Another, less tangible way of addressing the issue, is through policy.

In 2014, about $137 billion in public funds was spent on water infrastructure and resources, says Joseph Kane, a senior policy analyst for The Brookings Institution, citing a study released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). And while some of this is made up of federal dollars, about 75 percent comes from state and local governments.

Because of this, Kane says, these public entities that are struggling to simply maintain their water systems must be smarter and more tactical in the way they spend money.

“I think a lot of people are looking for these top-level, silver bullet solutions from the top down – [thinking] the federal government is going to lead, and they’re going to prescribe these huge stimulus-style packages to solve the challenge,” Kane says. “I think if anything has become evident over the past few years… is that a lot of states and localities realize they’re on their own.” 

The cavalry, so to speak, isn’t coming to save the day, Kane says. States and local governments  need to face the problem head on, and in order to do that, they must think outside traditional boxes. 

One way to do this is through regulating efficiencies, Kane says. Industry- and household-level changes in technology can make a water system more efficient and resilient, while changes in irrigation and landscaping techniques can reduce strain on the system. He also says looking to the private sector is becoming increasingly popular.

“It’s kind of this all-hands-on-deck strategy that’s coming from the bottom up,” Kane says. “It’s not just publicly led and driven, but it’s increasingly done in partnership with private sector players.”    

However, local governments need to start rethinking the way they go about establishing these public private partnerships. According to a Brookings Institution report, in many cases the procurement process that guides the way governments plan and finance infrastructure projects is in a greater state of disrepair than the assets themselves.

Procurement policy reform will be important in ensuring successful and efficient delivery of infrastructure projects, says Kane. Today’s procurement systems were developed for a less connected, slower-paced world. Outdated laws, burdensome regulatory frameworks, poor communication and lack of universal practices hinder growth and hobble progress. Visionary leadership, a talented pool of private and public sector professionals, standardization between agencies and increased collaboration will make a local government’s public private partnerships more effective.

But how should infrastructure projects be selected? Elizabeth Schilling, deputy director of policy development and implementation for Smart Growth America, says a “Fix it First” mentality should be at the forefront of civic leaders’ minds.

Schilling says that part of Smart Growth America’s advocacy, particularly as it pertains to water infrastructure, has centered on State Revolving Loan Funds, or a fund administered by a state government to provide low-interest loans for investments in water and sanitation infrastructure. Projects must meet certain criteria for these loans, and developing these criteria in a smart, sustainable way is important to the future of America’s water infrastructure, she says.

One of the biggest issues is that there are lots of programs available geared toward helping communities expand, Schilling says. “There are fewer programs that help communities pay for [this expansion] afterwards. A lot of our infrastructure policies are sort of post WWII, trying to help communities keep up with the pace of suburbanization.”

The problem, she says, is that it was expected the growth would end up paying for the costs of maintenance on these rapidly expanding systems. In reality, though, that hasn’t been the case. “We haven’t raised the taxes, we haven’t imposed the fees that will pay for the maintenance of sewer and water,” she says.

Given the challenges most communities face in this regard, Schilling says a “Fix it First” policy is the most prudent. “The idea is that you should prioritize maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure,” she says. “And, in some cases, expansion of infrastructure that supports existing communities – which is a very fine distinction, but it has big impacts.” 

And while the Fix it First water policies Smart Growth America advocates are geared mostly towards setting the criteria for state revolving funds, Schilling says the philosophy can certainly be applied at the local level. In fact, she says it may be easier for local leaders to apply this mindset because they have the best idea of where the priorities are. “This is something local governments need to lead on.”

So, where are local leaders making headway against the mounting problems?


J. Christian Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., is working to keep his city’s infrastructure afloat – both literally and figuratively. “Elizabeth just celebrated it’s 350th birthday,” Bollwage says. “That being said, our infrastructure is well over 100 years old.” The age of the system, and the fact that it combines both wastewater and sewer water has been among the city’s greatest challenges.

Complicating matters is Elizabeth’s geography. Sitting on the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait separating Staten Island, N.Y., from mainland New Jersey, the majority of the city is below sea level, so any time there is expansion in the city, flooding is a very real problem.

A recent example of flood control efforts, Bollwage shares, was along Verona Avenue where the city had to install a 1 million-gallon underwater retainer tank to keep stormwaters from flooding streets, businesses and homes. “We had to dig up a whole neighborhood – without low interest [state revolving fund] loans, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Outside-the-box thinking and partnerships with public entities have also helped Elizabeth in replacing infrastructure. PSE&G, the local electric utility, has plans to replace underground power lines in the city. “They want to run it right on the sewer line,” Bollwage says. “The problem is when they dig up the streets and they start running their cable, they’re going to crack the sewer lines and it’s going to interfere with a lot of residential property.” Bollwage is working on an agreement where the power company will replace the lines they encounter during their construction – creating significant cost savings for the city.

When the infrastructure is as old as Elizabeth’s “it would be impossible to do it without smart partners like this,” Bollwage says.

This creativity is important in Elizabeth and across the country in solving the problems related to water infrastructure. Creativity and speed, Bollwage says, are key to ensuring a city’s water system functions as it should. “The public has no patience for failed infrastructure,” he says. When there is a problem, the city must be swift in resolving it.

To this end, he says it’s important to remain vigilant and have open lines of communication with residents and public works personnel. If a basement is flooded, the local government needs to know before it spreads. If depressions in the roadways are appearing after a thaw, that can be indicative of cracked pipes beneath the surface. As difficult as it is, Bollwage says it’s important to stay one step ahead of problems, before they become disasters.

He adds it’s important for civic leaders to work hand-in-hand with their state and federal counterparts to ensure the availability of funding programs to “ensure cities and counties in this country can deal with the most important aspect of daily life – that is getting clean water into the house and wastewater out.” 


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