(First reported on USA Today)
This article presents the message of the 2017 Infrastructure Report, U.S.A. The report outlined the demands upon, and challenges faced by those responsible for maintaining a quality, on-demand water supply in the United States. Its focus moves from environmental concerns to issues of pipe maintenance and other practical infra-structure requirements.
CAPACITY AND QUALITY
Every day 42 billion gallons of water are used by households and businesses in the U.S. Around 80% of drinking water is sourced from surface waters such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and oceans, with the remaining 20% from groundwater aquifers. The report presents drinking water quality in the United States as the safest in the world. However, contamination threats to water sources, such as polluted water bodies, depleted aquifers, and inadequate storage are recognized as an increasing threat.
WATER WASTE AND PIPE REPLACEMENT
Approximately six billion gallons of treated drinking water are lost from leaking pipes daily. With leaks accounting for 18% of each day’s treated water; enough to support 15 million households. It is estimated that it will take 200 years to replace the one million miles of pipes, placing a demand on pipes nearly double their useful lifespan.
Utility managers are challenged to improve their resilience. The report highlights the urgent need for: updating inventories of critical assets; evaluating their condition and performance; developing plans to maintain, repair, and replace pipes and other assets; and funding these activities.
Infrastructure funding is primarily sourced via a local rate‐based system. These rates often do not reflect the true cost of supplying clean, reliable drinking water, resulting in severe underfunding. Population trends further challenge this model, with 15% of midsized cities in the U.S. currently shrinking. Presenting obstacles to utility managers raising sufficient capital for infrastructure plans. Estimates put upgrading existing water systems to meet needs at $1 trillion.
The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provides low‐interest loans to state and local water infrastructure projects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an allotment of funding for each state, and each state provides a 20% match. However, demand exceeds the program’s budget. The Congress authorized Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), to fund large water infrastructure projects, was provided only $17 million in 2016.
MEETING FUTURE DEMAND
The report acknowledges that conservation utilities have made inroads to ensuring that future demand is met. According to the American Water Works Association, many utilities (74%) have a formal conservation program, and 86% consider conserved water as one of their water supply alternatives. Additionally, many communities with separate drinking water and wastewater departments are cooperating, even consolidating, providing better water management and economy of scale.
The report recommends that utilities apply better project management protocols: such as conducting revenue forecasting models to institute rates that reflect the true cost of supplying clean, reliable drinking water; and initiating asset management programs.
Specific recommendations are made by the authors with regards to strategies that would stimulate infrastructure investment, such as:
- Reinvigorating the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) program under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Fully funding WIFIA.
- Establishing a federal Water Infrastructure Trust Fund.
- Eliminating the state cap on private activity bonds for water infrastructure projects.
FACING THE FUTURE
With contaminants recognized as a threat to water sources, one of the specific recommendations of the report is the advancement of conservation ballot measures that protect source water through dedicated funding to land and water protection. There is also a call to increase federal support and funding for green infrastructure, watershed permitting, and other programs that promote the concept of “one water” to protect watersheds.
Similarly, there is a recognition that the water infrastructure is only as good as the people that maintain it. The authors call for an Increase in federal and local support for vocational training in the drinking water sector as engineers, operators, and maintenance staff begin to retire in large numbers.
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