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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….

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In the past week I have had the opportunity to experience the extremes with water – heavy rains/tropical weather in SE Florida, and dry weather in Denver at America Water Works Association’s Annual Conferences and Exposition. Two months ago with was snowing in Denver and there had been limited rain in SE Florida. Six months ago we were both dry and there was significant concern about drought in both places. How quickly fortunes change and the associated attitudes as well. It is part of a perception problem – looking at the near term – instant gratification, as opposed the long-term consequences. In truth neither set of conditions is historically different or should have created major panic or much shift in attitudes, but it is the potential to predict conditions that require the water manager’s scrutiny. We have all become risk managers.

Managing risk is not in the job description of most water and sewer personnel (risk managers aside, and they are focused on liability risks from incidents caused by or incurred by the utility like accidents, not water supply risks). We spend a lot of effort on the engineering, operation and business side, but less on planning or risk/vulnerability assessments. EPA has required vulnerability assessments in the past, but having seen some of those exercises, most are fairly superficial and many put on a shelf and forgotten. I have had clients ask me if I still had copies because they did not. Clearly we need a renewed commitment to vulnerability assessment.

Vulnerability starts with water supplies. Groundwater is particularly tricky. A new USGS study reports significant decreases in water levels in many aquifers across the US, especially confined aquifers in the west. That situation is not improving, and the situation will not correct itself. Loss of your water supply is a huge vulnerability for a community. Finding a new supply is not nearly as simple as it sounds or as many are led to believe. Confined aquifers do not recharge quickly and therefore have finite amounts of water in them. Remove too much water and all too often land subsidence occurs, which means the aquifer collapses and will never hold the same amount of water. USGS has mapped this and it matches up well with the drawn down aquifers. More data needs to be collected, but Congress is looking to cut USGS funds for such purposes, just when conditions suggest the data is needed most.

Many watershed basins and many aquifers are over allocated and overdrawn, and not just in the west. New England and the Carolinas have examples. Overallocation means competition for water will increase with time and it will be utilities that everyone will look at to solve the problem. Afterall the utilities have money as opposed to agriculture and other users, right? To protect themselves, water utility managers will need to look beyond their “slice of the pie” to start discussions on the holistic benefits to water users throughout the watershed, which will extend to understanding economic and social impacts of water use decisions. It is not just about us, and paradigm shift that is coming and one that we as an industry need to be the leading edge for. Our use impacts others and vice versa. Every basin wants to grow and prosper, but decisions today may reduce our future potential. Klamath River is a great example of misallocated water priorities. The biggest potential economy in the basin is Salmon ($5B/yr), followed by tourism ($750 M and growing), which relies on fishing and hiking. But agriculture ($0.2 B/yr) get the water first. Then power, which warms the water (salmon like cold water). Then a few people (a few 100,000 at the most in the basin). The result, the salmon industry gets reduced to $50 M/yr. Now how could we create more jobs, which would result in more income and a bigger economy? The easy answer is encourage the salmon industry, but that doesn’t sit well with the other, smaller users that will become more vulnerable to losses.

I suggest that to harden our water future in any given basin, we need to start looking a little more holistically at the future. This type of analysis is clearly not in the job description of the utility or its managers, utility managers may have the best access to technical expertise and information. As a result to protect their interests and manage risk, we may need to shift that paradigm and become holistic water managers.

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