The US EPA estimates that there is a $500 billion need for infrastructure investment by 2025. The American Water Works Association estimate $1 trillion. Congress recently passes the Water infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at $40 million/year, rising to $100 million in 5 years, which is a drop in the bucket. Peanuts. We have so many issues with infrastructure in the US and Congress tosses a few scheckles at the problem and thinks it is solved. The reality is that the federal government wants to get out of the water infrastructure funding business and shift all water infrastructure to the local level. This is a long-standing trend, going back to the conversion of the federal water and sewer grant programs to loan programs.
The reality is that local officials need to make their utility system self-sustaining and operating like a utility business whereby revenues are generated to cover needed maintenance and long-term system reliability. The adage that “we can’t afford it” simply ignores the fact that most communities cannot afford NOT to maintain their utility system since the economic and social health of the community relies on safe potable water and wastewater systems operating 24/7. Too often decision are made by elected officials who’s vision is limited by future elections as opposed to long-term viability and reliability of the utility system and community. This is why boom communities fall precipitously, often never recovering – the boom is simply not sustainable. Long-term planning is a minimum of 20 years, well beyond the next election and often beyond the reign of current managers. Decisions today absolutely affect tomorrow’s operators. Dependency on water rates may be a barrier, but this ignores the fact that power, telephone, cable television, gas, and internet access are generally more expensive hat either water or sewer in virtually all communities. We need water. Not so sure about cable tv or he internet. Great to have, but needed to survive?
The growth in costs can lead to mergers where a utility cannot afford to go it alone – as the economy of scale of larger operations continues to play out in communities. Several small plants cannot operate at the same cost as one larger plant. As a result larger projects will increase – from 87 to over 336 between 2005 and 2014.
But these costs are generally plant costs – treatment and storage, not piping. Distribution pipelines remain the least recognized issue for water utilities (collection pipelines for sewer are similarly situated). The initial Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water acts did not focus on piping systems – only treatment and supply. The national Council on Public Works concluded their first assessment grade for infrastructure in the 1980s – but piping was not discussed. ACSCE’s first report card in 1998 did not express concern about piping system. Yet piping continues to age, and expose communities to risk. In many communities greater than 50% of their assets are buried pipes. Tools for assessing the condition of buried pipes especially water distribution pipes is limited to breaks and taps. As a result the true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases. The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future? That is the question as the next 20 years play out. Many risk issues will be exposed. The fact that there are not more issues is completely related to the excellent work done by the utility employees. More to come….