Responsibility, Failure and the Lack of Funds
Public water and sewer systems have the responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public they serve, just as engineers do. This is includes not just complying with regulatory mandates (they are minimum standards), but enacting such precautions as are needed to address things not included in the regs. Unfortunately we continue to pay too much attention on regulatory compliance and evaluate the condition of the system using unaccounted for water losses or leaks fixed in the system as a measure of condition. That may be an incorrect assumption. The problem is that unless we understand how the system operates, including how it deteriorates with time, the data from the past may well be at odds with the reality of the future. For example, that leak in your roof can be a simple irritation for a long time if you ignore it. But ignoring it creates considerable potential for damage, including roof failure if too much of the structure underneath is damaged. With a water system, pipes will provide good service for many years will minimal indication of deterioration. Then things will happen, but there is little data to indicate a pattern. But like your roof leak, the damage has been done and the leaks are an indication of the potential for failure. Bacteria, color, pressure problems and flow volumes are all indicators of potential problems, but long-term tracking is needed to determine develop statistical tools that can help with identifying end of life events. Basic tools like graphs will not help here.
Construction to repair and replace local water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure is expected to reach $3.2 and $4.8 billion respectively for water and sanitary sewer. The federal SRF programs are only $1.7 Billion in SRF loans, 24% below 2012 and well below the levels identified by the federal government to sustain infrastructure condition. The only reason for the decrease seems to be a demand by Congress to reduce budgets, especially EPA’s budget where this money resides. But the 2008 recession and its lingering effects to date have deferred a significant amount of infrastructure investments, and the forecast does not rectify the past deficits, and likely does not address the current needs either. Few water and sewer systems are flush with funds to update infrastructure and borrowing has become a difficult sell for many public officials. Lake Worth, FL just had a $60 million bond issue for infrastructure redevelopment defeated by voters two weeks ago. The officials know they need this infrastructure, but the public is unconvinced because few serious problems have occurred. We have to get the public past this view so we can improve reliability and public safety. Those are the arguments we need to demonstrate. The question is how.