See how the nation's engineers rate the condition of water and wastewater systems

America’s water and wastewater infrastructure continue to earn barely passing grades on the civil engineers’ report cards.

In all my years of schooling I never had to bring home a report card with a D or F on it. It’s a good thing, because my parents didn’t take kindly even to the occasional C.

Anyway, by that standard, my mom and dad would not appreciate the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It’s the society’s first report card in four years, and it shows only modest improvement — an overall grade of C- versus a D+ for 2017.

As for drinking water and wastewater, they haven’t yet climbed into the realm of average (C). Drinking water earned a C-, up from a D four years ago. Wastewater rated a D+, the same as for 2017. So essentially, the more time goes by, the more things stay about the same.

Water main breaks abound

The ASCE reports that the nation has more than 148,000 active drinking water systems; the water distribution infrastructure includes some 2.2 million miles of underground pipes. “Unfortunately, the system is aging and underfunded,” says the report card’s summary. “The oldest pipes in the country were laid in the late 1800s, and many pipes installed after World War II are reaching the end of their 75- to 100-year life expectancy.

“There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day . . . enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools. This equates to 2.1 trillion gallons of nonrevenue water loss per year. The U.S. lost an estimated $7.6 billion of treated water in 2019 due to leaks.”

The report notes that smaller utilities can see up to twice as many pipe breaks as larger utilities because they have more miles of pipe per customer. They also have smaller customer bases and so less revenue and less money available for repairs.

On the plus side, the report stated that by 2019 utilities were replacing 1% to 4.8% of their pipes per year on average, a rate that matches the pipes’ life cycle. The summary also notes signs of progress in that federal financing programs are expanding and utilities are raising rates so that they can reinvest in their networks.

By 2019 about one-third of utilities had solid asset management programs in place to help set investment priorities. Utilities also were improving resiliency with updated risk assessments and emergency response plans.

Wastewater plants aging

“The nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants are functioning, on average, at 81% of their design capacity, while 15% have reached or exceeded it,” says the report. “Though large-scale capital improvements have been made to systems experiencing sanitary sewer overflows, efforts have slowed in recent years.”

Most treatment plants are designed to last 40 to 50 years, which means those built in the 1970s around passage of the original Clean Water Act in 1972 are reaching the end of their expected service lives. The report observes that as the facilities age, they will cost more to operate and maintain.

The wastewater collection network included more than 800,000 miles of public sewers and some 500,000 miles of private sewer laterals. As these pipes age, I&I becomes a growing problem, overtaxing the systems and leading to sanitary sewer overflows. “Conveyance systems are also susceptible to other failures like blockages caused by consumer products such as wipes and paper towels,” says the report. In 2019, utilities spent more than $3 billion to replace some 4,700 miles of sewer pipelines.

As with the water side, there are positive signs. Asset management plans are enabling 62% of utilities surveyed to manage proactively instead of just responding to failures. While the annual water infrastructure investment gap was $81 billion in 2019, utilities have made gains by planning for resiliency and with innovations that yield cost savings or revenue-generating treatment byproducts.

Things looking up?

So it appears that while much news about the water and wastewater infrastructure is bad, there are clear trends in the right direction. In my home, that would have made Mom and Dad a bit more forgiving of any below-average grades.   


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