Aging Water Infrastructure Issues In The United States

One of the many issues that America faces today is the problem with the water. The water system is failing, and it affects individual households and the communities. Every day, the authorities are faced with a huge challenge to solve the issue and replace the water infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers or the ASCE stated that the government needs to invest around $3.6 trillion on the infrastructure alone by 2020. With such investment, it can increase the support system of America at the standard levels. This investment can also repair the nation’s stormwater and wastewater systems over the next 20 years.

In some parts of America, the unmanaged stormwater systems affect the streams and the rivers and cause health problems among nearby communities. Furthermore, the majority of the drinking infrastructure is aging and are almost falling apart.

According to studies, there are about 240,000 water main breaks annually in America. For every pipe that needs to be replaced, the cost in the coming years to come can reach on up to $1 trillion according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

Indeed, the water problem of America is diverse and it is getting worse as years passed by. If it is not addressed immediately, the cost to repair might be more.

Thus, this article aims to discuss the aging water infrastructure in the United States. This will tackle the brief history of the water systems in America. Finally, this will provide samples of the current efforts of the government to solve the issues of the people on the water.

Brief History of the Water Systems in America

The Congress amended the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 or the Clean Water Act (CWA).

On this system, the state and the local governments are responsible for establishing the federal standards. Also, this act has updated the construction grants program wherein municipalities can receive funds to help them restructure their publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs) or sewer systems and make it compliant with the federal laws.

Meanwhile, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Congress, were concerned about the expenses of the grant program. Thus, they changed the source of the fund with the State Revolving Loan Fund or the SRF.

Under the SRF, the federal government can provide a grant or a capital to each state according to a statutory formula. Thereafter, each state can allow the municipalities to loan such fund to repair and upgrade their POTWs plus the adjoining structures.

In 1996, the Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act and paved the way for the creation of the SRF drinking water. This is similar to states who use federal funds and loan it to community water systems to make improvements on the water systems.

According to the 2002 Gap Analysis of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from the year 1982-2002 communities have spent a total of $1 trillion on the treatment of drinking water plus wastewater disposal.

However, this is not enough to keep up with the needs of the public since these facilities become old as the years pass.

The data shows that there are 14,478 POTWs which serves around 75% of the population or about 238 million Americans. POTWs have 20 to 50-year life-cycle only and pipes can last from 15 to 100 years old depending on weather conditions. Some pipes can last up to 200 years old and these are located in the northeastern cities.

It must be noted as well that due to the exodus of people that transfers from Northeast to the South and the West have caused some areas to decline and be left out to pay for the upgrades. Other areas need an immediate expansion of service.

It must be noted that those who wish to expand their plants due to the growth of population are not eligible for SRFs.

Despite the standards set by authorities since 1972, about 4 million Americans don’t have access to basic sewage treatment. As a matter of fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that due to aging pipes and the inadequate capacity of the system, it resulted to the discharge of about 900 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into the waterways annually.

Apart from the miles of sewer pipes, America has 1.2 million miles of main water supplies which is equivalent to 26 miles of water mains for each mile of interstate highway.

Meanwhile, there are about 21,000 non-profit community water systems and 52,000 community water systems or CWSs in the country. Over 100,000 people are served by about 611 systems. These huge systems are only 1.2% out of the 39% need of the country.

On the other hand, over 41,000 systems serve less than 3,000 people and that is about 83% of systems from the 17% of the need.

With this diverse system size, it complicates the efforts to create a comprehensive financing system which can address appropriately the needs of other water systems.

The Need

Every state has an SRF priority list. It includes each project per state that needed fund from the loan.

However, it is not a complete list of all the needed projects since some of them defer the system upgrades because they believe that the Congress will one day bring back the construction grants program.

Meanwhile, raising the sewer or water rates is not the best options on these systems because the impact rate will increase especially for the low-income customers.

In addition, the state does not include the large system on the priority list because it can secure low-interest rates on the bond market.

Indeed, the state lists can give information, however, these are still incomplete.

As such, it is best to rely on the quadrennial state surveys done by the EPA to determine the level of the nationwide need.

According to the recent survey of the EPA which pertains to the needs, the US government must invest around $271 billion in the next 20 years to upgrade the stormwater or wastewater system. Also, they must invest around $384 for the upgrade of the clean drinking water.

As a matter of fact, the stormwater is one of the largest expenses of the majority of the local communities.

The survey conducted by the EPA accounts for 21% only of the stormwater needs.

For years, there have been debates between EPA and the states with regards to the type of documentation needed to justify the costs of the survey.

Many states have tried to explain completely the water quality benefits and the costs of a stormwater project. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) states that the United States needs to invest around $1 trillion for the next 25 years to change all of the drinking water pipes, sewer lines, and the stormwater plants as well. AWWA has also included in this estimation the need to change the pipes, which are not reflected in the survey conducted by the EPA.

Apart from lacking a vivid national situation, the public is worried and uninformed of the state of the water infrastructure of the nation.

For example, reports show that water main breaks are due to the effect they have on traffic and not because of the amount of water lost or the cost needed to recoup the water. The public waste the water and they don’t find the need to save it for the future. Nowadays, people view it as a certainty and not a commodity that needs monitoring, conservation, and valuation.

Current Federal Programs

Apart from the local and state funds, the federal government has various fund mechanisms. Here are some of the examples of the federal programs:

Clean Water State Revolving Fund of the EPA

The EPA grants funds to the states that provide loans to the communities for the building of the wastewater treatment infrastructure, estuary programs, and non-point pollution management.

Community Development Block Grant of the Department of Housing and Urban Development

This provides block grant funds to states to be distributed in the communities and metropolitan areas. The communities use the fund for various activities which include the enhancement of wastewater and water infrastructures. 10% of the funds are used for this purpose according to the government officials.

Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, Public Works and Economic Development Program

This program provides a fund to small communities so they construct public facilities which include drinking water facilities. This program also aims to reduce unemployment in their areas.

US Army Corps of Engineers

This provides assistance for various water and wastes water infrastructure projects on locations which are authorized by the Congress.

Water and Waste Disposal Program of the Department of Agriculture, Rural Utilities Service

This provides funding opportunities for the water and wastes water infrastructure projects in areas with a population of fewer than 10,000 people.

Public-Private Partnerships

One of the alternative to finance and deliver water infrastructure projects is through the Public-Private Partnership (P3 or PPP) programs.

In this program, the public agency will enter into any agreements with the private association that deals with construction, engineering, design, and operating companies to construct and rehabilitate water facilities. It also includes the maintenance of infrastructure facilities which include the treatment plants, rail lines, and bridges.

With this business model, project risks such as schedule delays and cost overruns will be turned over to the private partner. In some cases, the entire water system is transferred to the private partner via privatization.

Furthermore, in the P3 model, the private associations often finance the upfront costs of the project with the assurance of repayment plus interest on a certain period of time.

In the business of water sector, repayment can be gained from the fees paid by the customers of the sewer and water services. Indeed, P3 can deliver more than what a traditional procured goods and services can offer. However, some municipalities only tend to consider the P3 arrangement when their system has failed or they cannot look for additional revenue on their own through bonding.

In some cases, municipalities lack the upfront money to solve the rising problem may it be the sewer overflow or a violation of the water standards such as in Flint, Michigan.

Indeed, the P3 model can finance both the plants and the underground infrastructure. But sometimes, the replacement of the pipes can be faced with challenges such as the need for the rights of way, prevention of the gas and cable line, and obstruction of public transits. 

The replacement of the pipes is the most expensive part of several water infrastructure projects and the municipalities are not always ready on what roles should private sectors take in the said project.

Finally, P3s in the water sector often meets problems from the public. The people are concerned with the services being controlled by private entities. As such, P3s are underutilized nowadays when we talk about the water sector.

Berkey Water Filters

If you wish to combat the issue of hard water due to old pipes, you can invest in a water filter such as the Berkey Water Filters.

The Berkey Water Filters can remove the fluoride, arsenic, MTBE, and other heavy metal ions in the water.

The system is made of high-quality materials that can surely last a long time. Go ahead and check the products section here.

Conclusion

In sum, with the various challenges and the system risk at hand, the country needs a national and strategic plan on how to address the water concerns nowadays. Indeed, the aging water infrastructure can affect the health of the people plus the environment across the country.

The Executive Council on Infrastructure of the BPC has issued recommendations on how to attract additional private capital to help improve the infrastructure of America. With the release of the recommendations, the BPC has exerted extra effort to search the funding gap authenticated by the Government Accountability Office and the EPA.

Apart from the identification of the best ways for the agency to attract more private capital, the project aims to explore whether or not the current programs of the federal government are the most efficient and effective way to assist communities in their critical and expensive water needs to survive.

 


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