Bad Report Card: Low Marks — Again — For U.S. Water Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers says that more money needs to be spent on infrastructure.

united states U.S. water infrastructure kearny nebraska railroad boomtown pipes library of congress

Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society
In 1889, the streets of Kearney, Nebraska, were ripped open so that workers could install sewer pipes. In some U.S. cities, pipes this old are still in the ground. Click to enlarge

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

Dams: D
Drinking Water: D
Inland Waterways: D-
Levees: D-
Wastewater: D

America’s water infrastructure is not failing — but just barely, according to the latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

For better or worse, the problem is money. The low grades are a result of delayed maintenance and underinvestment, the report says.

Though drinking water and wastewater did improve slightly from the last report in 2009, having dropped their ‘minuses’ this time around, none of the water categories have rated above or below level D since the ASCE began handing out scores in 1998. In other words, the condition of America’s water infrastructure is basically stagnant, according to Jeff Eger, executive director of the Water Environment Federation, an industry group for water quality.

Report Card Recommendations
To boost its grades for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, the U.S. should take several steps, according to the ASCE:
  • Utilities should increase water rates to raise more capital for local improvements.
  • Utilities should consider separate lines for potable and non-potable water to reduce the cost of treatment.
  • The federal government should reinvigorate existing loan programs for clean water and create new trust funds and financing authorities that entice private dollars or allow water projects to be financed at U.S. Treasury interest rates.

“Once the infrastructure is in the ground, it starts deteriorating,” Eger told Circle of Blue. Many of those pipes have been in the ground since before Prohibition, and utilities are not replacing them fast enough. Some systems are on a 200 to 300 year replacement cycle, Eger said.

And there are a lot of pipes, too — the ASCE report cites estimates of 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles) of water mains in the United States.

If anything has changed since those first reports nearly two decades ago, it is that there is even less money now for water infrastructure, according to David Sedlack, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The financial crisis and recession have cut revenues for many utilities, resulting in delayed maintenance. The fiscal stimulus in 2009 put $US 6 billion into two federal water loan programs, but, since then, federal funding has dropped to roughly $US 1 billion per year for each program.

“We’re seeing the long-term effects of a system that is out of balance,” Sedlack told Circle of Blue. Those effects include an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year and nearly 14,000 dams — or one out of every seven dams — in the United States rated as “high hazard,” meaning that the flush of water from a broken dam would likely kill people.

“Municipal leaders are doing much better than a D+, given the hand they’ve been dealt.”

–Adam Krantz
National Association of Clean Water Agencies

The shoddy water systems are not primarily the fault of water managers, said Adam Krantz, director of government and public affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“Municipal leaders are doing much better than a D+, given the hand they’ve been dealt,” Krantz told Circle of Blue.

Eger agreed, saying, “This grade is not reflective of water professionals, who are doing stellar work. This is the result of a lack of resources.”

Dear Government, Send Money

Utilities and their lobby groups routinely complain that the U.S. government is not spending enough money on water infrastructure and that water quality mandates are breaking the backs of ratepayers.

This is partly true. In the 1970s, after the Clean Water Act, U.S. taxpayers picked up more than half the tab for new municipal sewage plants. Federal investments of that magnitude began drying up in the 1980s when grants were replaced with a loan program, shifting more of the cost to local ratepayers.

Now, instead of treatment plants, pipes are the bigger fiscal concern, Eger said. Last year the American Water Works Association estimated that $US 1 trillion would be needed over the next 25 years to replace just the pipes in the U.S. water system, not including funds needed for treatment plants or reservoirs.

Success Stories
The ASCE grades are a national average, which hides the progress that some cities are making. The report cites several cities and utilities doing exemplary work, including:
  • The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for becoming more energy efficient: biofuel is now being created from grease that is recovered from the city’s sewer system and investments are being made in water recycling and conservation.
  • Portland, Oregon, for expanding its sewer collection system in an efficient manner: floating pipes, tethered to the bottom of Lake Oswego, are sloped so that sewage flows through the system by gravity, eliminating the need for pumps.
  • Chicago, for speeding up its water main-replacement program: in the next decades, the windy city will triple the amount of pipe it replaces, which will be paid for through raised rates and cuts to payroll.
  • The Louisville Water Company, for an innovative treatment project: using a riverbank to provide natural filtration for its drinking water, this model reduces costs at the treatment plant.

Most of the money for repairs come from state and local governments, including ratepayers. In all, these sources covered more than 98 percent of all drinking water and wastewater costs in 2008, according to the report. Even if Congress tripled the amount of money it allocates to water infrastructure, it would do little to change the spending balance.

Even if federal spending does not return to 1970s levels, there are other ways that Congress could help. The ASCE, as well as many utility lobby groups, argues that new financing programs could encourage private investment, like what Chicago, has done to embrace partnerships with private finance. Congress could also lift restrictions on certain tax-exempt bonds or lower the borrowing rate for water projects.

Either way, Krantz argued, Congress needs to think of water as a connected system, like roads.

“In effect, rivers are a national grid,” he said. “But they haven’t been treated that way in national funding.”

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