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Upgrading the Water/Wastewater Infrastructure
April 22, 2021 | Robert Bergman
For the fifth year in a row, restoring and replacing aging water and infrastructure is the number one challenge of U.S. water utilities, according to the 2020 American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) annual State of the Water Industry Report. A recent report card from American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) helps explain why. They provide some signs of aging of the 2.2 million miles of underground drinking water piping in the U.S., some of which has been in service since the 19th century.
“Between 2004 and 2017, various sources estimate there were between 10 to 37 leaks and breaks per 100 miles of pipe. One report found a 27% increase in water main break rates between 2012 and 2018, reaching an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 breaks per year; this is equivalent to a water main break every two minutes,” the ASCE authors write.
Not surprisingly, access to funding to improve the infrastructure is their second greatest concern. According to the ASCE, funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address aging systems. Help may be on the way though, through a combination of federal loan programs, COVID related stimulus relief and the pending American Jobs Plan.
Federal Loan Programs
The federal government provides water utilities two very attractive loan programs: the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program and the State Revolving loan Fund (SRF).
The WIFIA was enacted in 2014 to provide loans for water projects, and, according to John Ryan of In Recap LLC, a firm that focusses on debt alternatives for the recapitalization of basic public infrastructure, has “continued to operate efficiently and even in increasing scale in 2020, despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19.” The state of Michigan, for example, recently received $18 million under this act to upgrade parts of its water infrastructure.
The Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) was established by the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). It provides financial assistance to help water systems and states to achieve the health protection objectives of the SDWA. ( 42 U.S.C. §300j-12.) The program is a partnership between EPA and the states. Congress appropriates funds to the EPA, which awards grants to states based upon the results of the most recent Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. States match 20 percent.
COVID-19 Related Relief
Water utilities also received some benefit from the COVID-driven relief programs through the American Rescue Plan Act 2020 and FY21 Consolidated Appropriations Act making $65.1 billion in direct federal aid available to all counties based on their share of the U.S. population. Funds are usable for a variety public health functions including necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
Shortly after the 2020 election, the AWWA and a consortium of leading water agencies and associations sent Joe Biden a letter apprising him of the state of the U.S. water/wastewater infrastructure.
“Sound water infrastructure is vital to public health, environmental protection, firefighting and economic growth,” they wrote. “Investment in the nation’s water infrastructure will be key to our economic recovery. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) at the U.S Department of Commerce estimates that for every dollar spent on water infrastructure, $2.63 is generated in the private economy. And for every job added in the water workforce, the BEA estimates that 3.68 jobs are added in the national economy.”
Based on a projection of future pipe failure and the cost of replacement, they told Biden that the U.S. will need to invest $1 trillion over 25 years to maintain our current level of service and to serve a growing population. About 54 percent of those water infrastructure needs will be for replacement of aging pipes and 46 percent is needed to address population growth and movement.
Biden appears to have gotten some of that message, allocating $56 billion toward a broad array of infrastructure programs and $10 billion for monitoring and remediation of per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). The act also includes $45 billion to address lead in drinking water in homes and schools.
A drop in the bucket
Compared to $1 trillion that the AWWA believes is needed, the current proposed allocations are but a drop in the bucket (pun intended), but they do give water utilities something to work with. For many utilities needing upgrades, however, this can be an opportunity to turn a small investment in automation technology into long-term savings and service quality improvement. The cost savings come largely from four measures:
- Improving overall cost of operations and improving efficiency by automating manual functions, while adding advanced diagnostics and remote access to improve overall safety and performance.
- Replacing proprietary applications and tools with those built on open standard source code, which dramatically lowers the lifecycle cost of software.
- Choosing automation designed for non-obsolescence. Aging PLCs and other automation components are key contributors to water infrastructure capital costs. Water automation replacement and upgrade projects can be costly and complex because they must be accomplished with minimal service interruption. Selecting an automation platform built on technologies designed to operate for multiple decades of service is one of the simplest ways to save vast sums of money and maximize return on investment.
- Implementing modern controls that already have cyber security built-in, which can reduce the amount utilities would otherwise have to spend for add-on measures such as firewalls, intrusion protection devices and network segmentation, dramatically.
For cases histories about water plants that are upgrading, visit: