What is the Problem?
Much of the U.S. water infrastructure -- the systems that treat, distribute, collect and clean water -- was built nearly a century ago. With quiet consistency, this infrastructure has provided the foundation for an economic prosperity and quality of life that has made the United States the envy of the world, until now. Water infrastructure suffering from age and exponential population growth demands our attention. Without reinvestment, we are headed for a crisis.
The 1.5 million miles of water and wastewater pipe that comprise our nation’s infrastructure have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years. Many eastern cities have water and wastewater infrastructure close to 200 years old, Cincinnati, Portland, Baltimore, D.C., Atlanta, etc. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that 50% of the nation’s large systems’ pipe is near replacement age.1 In some cases, the infrastructure is literally falling apart.
In addition to their age, these systems were originally designed for populations half their current size. Since 1950 the U.S. population has more than doubled. Most of the growth is in urban centers where it wears infrastructure down. Population growth is anticipated to continue stretching water and wastewater systems significantly beyond capacity.
Adding insult to injury, a draft EPA report says cities should prepare for overflows to worsen as climate change is anticipated to increase intense rain and snow events in the Great Lakes region and Northeast. Even with newer facilities and innovative alternatives, upgrades are required to keep pace with growing needs and environmental challenges.
Sewer and water rates have never been reflective of the true cost of service. The United States has taken clean water for granted for many years. A GAO study showed that 29% of water and 41% of wastewater utilities were not generating enough revenue from user rates to cover the full cost of their service. As a result, maintenance is chronically on the back burner.
At the same time, investment in water infrastructure maintenance has declined dramatically. Competing needs for limited resources push those that are most quiet (water infrastructure) to the bottom of the list. With levees bursting, gas pipes busting, and bridges collapsing, it’s difficult for the public to grasp the water infrastructure vulnerabilities taking place invisibly beneath us.
At this point, it’s critical that we turn the situation around for sustainable water infrastructure across the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that if we do not reinvest in our water and wastewater infrastructure by 2016, water pollution levels may deteriorate to those observed in the 1970s. We risk loosing decades of progress in public health and environmental protection. We threaten our economic well-being and quality of life.
1 GAO, Water Infrastructure: Comprehensive Asset Management Has Potential to Help Utilities Better Identify Needs and Plan Future Investments (March 2004).