When we ask what the biggest issues facing water and sewer are in the next 20 years, the number one answer is usually getting a handle on failing infrastructure. Related to infrastructure is sustainability of supplies and revenue needs. Resolving the infrastructure problem will require money, which means revenues, and overcoming the resistance to fully fund water and sewer system by local officials, the potential for significant costs or shortfalls for small, rural systems and the increasing concern about economically disadvantaged people.
The US built fantastic infrastructure systems in the mid-20th century that allowed our economy to grow and for us to be productive. But like all tools and equipment, it degrades, or wears out with time. Our economy and our way of life requires access to high quality water and waste water. So this will continue to be critical.
ASCE and USEPA have both noted the deteriorated condition of the water and wastewater systems. In the US, we used to spend 4% of the gross GNP on infrastructure. Currently is it 2%. Based on the needs and spending, there is a clear need to reconstruct system to maintain our way of life. This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020. USEPA believes infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus the proposed federal decrease of similar amounts or more.
Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is research to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way. The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data. Make no mistake, our way of life results from extensive, highly efficient and economic infrastructure systems.
In many ways we are victims of our own success. The systems have run so well, the public takes them for granted. It is hard to make the public understand that our cities are sitting on crumbling systems that have suffered from lack of adequate funding to consistently maintain and upgrade. Public agencies are almost always reactive, as opposed to pro-active, which is why we continuously end up in defensive positions and at the lower end of the spending priorities. So we keep deferring needed maintenance. The life cycle analysis concepts used in business would help. A 20 year old truck, pump, backhoe, etc. just aren’t cost effective to operate and maintain.
Another part this problem is that people have grown used to the fact that water is abundant, cheap, and safe. Open the tap and here it comes; flush the toilet and there it goes, without a thought as to what is involved to produce, treat and distribute potable water as well as to collect, treat, and discharge wastewater.
Water and Sewer utilities are being funded at less than half the level needed to meet the 30 year demands. Meanwhile relying on the federal government, which is trying to reduce funding for infrastructure for local utilities is not a good plan either. We need education, research and demonstrations to show those that control funding of the needs. The education many be the toughest part because making the those that control funding agree to increase rates carries a potential risk to them personally. But there are no statues to those that don’t raise rates – only those with vision. We need to instill vision in our decision-makers.