Investments in the Utility – Part 1

A public water and sewer utility is created to develop safe, reliable and financially self-supporting potable water and sanitary sewage systems which will meet the water and sewerage needs of the areas served by the utility; to ensure that existing and future utility facilities are constructed, operated and managed at the least possible cost to the users without outside subsidies; and to develop a system that is compatible with the area’s future growth. To gain efficiencies in operation, these new facilities must be developed in accordance with the latest technical and professional standards to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens served now or in the future.


Hence a utility must construct new pipelines, pump stations and other infrastructure, whether that infrastructure is for growth, to improve existing service, or to replace infrastructure that has reached the end of its useful, economic, and/or physical life.  In established or stable communities, the replacement of existing infrastructure, where it is no longer economical to operate, is deteriorated to a point where replacement is more cost effective than repairs due to wear, neglect or environmental conditions, or where the infrastructure no longer serves its intended purpose or meets regulatory standards, must be pursued.  As a result, many established utilities have capital plans that contain many such replacement projects.

One reason we need to invest is to keep the infrastructure up-to-date and operating properly because   numerous studies confirm that infrastructure investment spurs economic growth. Cohen et al (2010) estimated that a dollar spent on infrastructure construction produces roughly double the initial spending in ultimate economic output in the short-term, primarily in the manufacturing and business services sectors.  Economic theory and practice also suggests that public sector spending, primarily in infrastructure, can stimulate of the economy in difficult times.  The most notable examples are the Works Progress Administration (WPA; renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration) projects of the Great Depression and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) legislation of the Great Recession.  Both are credited with putting people to work, and preventing further economic hardship on the country (Krugman, 2014; Kavoussi, 2011).  By putting people to work, there was more income that could be spent, and therefore the greater potential for economic growth (Krugman, 2014).  Similarly, Eberts, (1991) and Munnell and Cook (1990) suggest underinvestment in public capital may ultimately retard our economic growth.


So the question is: Do local utilities invest enough? We should ask that question given that ASCE claimed that additional spending of $1.6 trillion, in 2010 dollars, is needed by 2020 to bring the quality of the country’s infrastructure up from “poor” to “good” and that the US could lose $18 trillion in GDP in the next 10 years due to infrastructure deficiencies.  The American Water Works Association (2012) estimated $1 trillion in for just water systems and the USEPA estimated a $500 billion need for infrastructure investment by 2025.

Underinvestment leads to public health risk in addition to economic risk.  Much of the recent news is about the lead and legionella issues associated with potable water with the Flint, Michigan water system.  There have been at least six indictments, a Congressional hearing and numerous lawsuits filed.  The fallout will continue as all utilities will be re-evaluating water quality issues associated with piping.  One of the major discussions was the issues with lead service lines in Flint. Many utilities are now fielding questions about and dealing with lead in their services lines, research that will come for lead, and regulatory requirements for upgrades.  Money drives decisions.  There is a utility system in Florida that contracted its operations to save money (and pension costs).  Flint’s decision to change water sources was driven by money, not public health.  Other risks come from increasing incidents to failure – there are utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age-related problems, and impacts of the 2008 financial crisis likely delayed capital improvements and diverted water and sewer revenues to hemorrhaging general funds.  So not enough funds are being spent on infrastructure it would seem.  But can we see this at the utility level?  Stay tuned for Part 2.



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