How Long Will Our Nation's Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Be Neglected?

Our water infrastructure badly needs work. In a time of tax cuts, COVID-19 relief and huge deficits, where will the money come from?

There’s a scene in the old Tom Hanks/Shelley Long movie, The Money Pit that relates to the status of America’s infrastructure.

The Hanks character calls a plumber to fix the piping of the stately but decrepit home he and his wife (Long) have bought. The plumber gives an estimate (outrageous) without even going into the basement. Hanks asks if he even plans to look at the pipes. The crusty old tradesman replies, “I looked at them five years ago. Do you figure they’ve improved with age?”

It turns that out as a nation we are treating our plumbing — our water and sewer infrastructure — as if it’s going to get better (or at least not worse) over time without adequate investment. This was a big problem a decade or more ago. It’s an even tougher problem now that we’ve cut taxes by trillions of dollars and added more trillions in (albeit necessary) COVID-19-related stimulus and relief.

But the infrastructure issues remain. And now we are approaching $30 trillion in national debt. With annual structural deficits of at least a trillion dollars a year as far as the eye can see. With millions of people out of work and so not paying taxes, many may be falling behind on their utility bills. Yet the money for upgrades has to come from somewhere.

Ugly numbers

How big is the problem? The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest Infrastructure Report Card gives our drinking water systems a grade of D and our wastewater systems a D+. Those grades have stayed pretty much the same over the years.

The ASCE published its last Infrastructure Report Card in 2017. They used to come out every two years; one has to wonder if the society has just grown tired of sounding an alarm to which those in power do not respond. Consider a few facts from the latest report card:

The nation’s nearly 14,800 wastewater treatment plants will see more than 56 million new users connect over the next two decades, a 23% increase. An estimated $271 billion is needed to meet current and future demands.

Many of our nation’s drinking water pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a life span of 75 to 100 years. There are about 240,000 water main breaks per year, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons. The AWWA estimates it will take $1 trillion to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years.

And the water sectors have to compete for funds with airports, dams, railways, schools, bridges, roads, transit and much more. Can the entire burden of upgrading water systems be placed on local? Not likely. And yet, some of the cost is certain to be borne locally, since federal and state funds will be hard to come by.

Winning support

So, where does that leave plant operations teams who don’t control the purse strings, who make things tick day to day while the elected or appointed decision-makers deal with the finances?

It turns out that everyone in the industry has a role to play. In large measure it’s about making sure communities’ elected officials and citizens at large understand the importance of drinking water and wastewater facilities, and the cost (financial and otherwise) of letting them continue to deteriorate.

That means saying goodbye to the low profile. It means getting out and talking to school groups. Being visible at community events. Bringing decision-makers and community residents of all ages in for plant tours. Giving talks to Rotary and Lions clubs. Anything to drive home the message that these services are important, that they need money, and that the investment will be well worth it in the end.

Infrastructure renewal is an issue everyone in the drinking water and clean-water professions will have to help promote in some manner. Because our pipes (and other facilities) are certainly not improving with age.   


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