November 2007, Vol. 19, No.11

Infrastructure Woes Take Center Stage

Will public attention lead to greater support for infrastructure funding?

Following the July explosion of a steam pipe in New York City and the August collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, the state of the nation’s infrastructure has received increased public notice. But will the added attention translate into more funding for the nation’s various infrastructure facets, including water and wastewater?

 

Making the Public Aware
The increased attention devoted to infrastructure in general offers an opportunity to persuade the public of the need to boost funding for the water and wastewater sectors. “Any time you can put infrastructure in the forefront of people’s consciousness, it allows us to highlight the issues that exist for all our infrastructure,” said Chris Westhoff, general counsel to the Department of Public Works for the City of Los Angeles. “We need to keep reminding the public how important wastewater infrastructure is to society as a whole.”

Of course, advocates for increased funding for water and wastewater infrastructure must bear in mind that other sectors also are seeking additional funding, Westhoff noted. “The pie is only so large, and it gets cut up among the various needs,” he said. “It’s up to us in this industry to ensure that the policy-makers and the people who divide up that pie give us enough of the resources to maintain that infrastructure.”

Absent sustained advocacy, the water and wastewater sectors likely will be overlooked by those in a position to increase federal funding for such infrastructure, said Patricia Sinicropi, legislative counsel for the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). “The squeaky wheels get the grease,” she said. “I think it does behoove groups and advocates that want to see funding go toward water and wastewater infrastructure to make their voices heard in this debate.”

Unfortunately, the water industry must work harder than other, more visible infrastructure sectors to make its case for increased financial support, said Jim Clark, vice president in the Los Angeles office of Black & Veatch (Kansas City, Mo.). “We’re a victim of our own success, in that the public is used to having safe water every time they turn on the tap,” he said. “And they’re used to having their wastewater disappear instantaneously.” With most of its facilities located underground or largely out of sight, the water and wastewater fields have a disadvantage compared to such other infrastructure sectors as roads, bridges, and mass transit.

As a result, increased attention paid to other infrastructure as a result of a disaster could end up redirecting funds away from water and wastewater, Clark said. “I think that it’s probably going to hurt the water industry because funds are going to be diverted to other areas, like bridges and transportation,” he said.

Faced with this possibility, the water industry must redouble its efforts to educate the public and elected officials about the importance of adequately funding water and wastewater infrastructure, Clark said. “We need to educate the public more about how we’re able to provide them with safe water and able to treat their wastewater in an environmentally responsible way,” he said. “We also need to spend more time educating local decision-makers, because in many cases, I don’t think they completely understand what it takes” to provide such services, Clark said. Water Is Life, and Infrastructure Makes It Happen™ — the campaign conducted by WEF and a coalition of other organizations with an interest in water issues — is an excellent tool for achieving these goals, he said.

Estimating the Needs
The past several years have seen a plethora of reports estimating the massive amounts of money that are expected to be required to maintain the U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure. Estimates developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, and the Water Information Network — a coalition of local elected officials, water and wastewater agencies, and others interested in water quality — have determined that the nation will need to spend on the order of hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars in the coming decades to maintain its water and wastewater infrastructure.

“I’m not sure that anybody can really predict exactly how much money it will take to maintain the water and wastewater infrastructure in this country,” Westhoff said. “But I can certainly tell you it is a very large number.”

In fact, such reports possibly could be underestimating the true cost because of an absence of pertinent data, said Michael Sweeney, principal consultant and asset management practices lead for EMA (St. Paul, Minn.). “These estimates are based on analysis, but not with a whole lot of asset-condition data behind them,” he said. Because most utilities typically do not have an adequate understanding of the condition of their assets, he said, such estimates possibly could be too low.

Finding the Funding
Few would dispute the fact that greater investment is needed at the local, state, and federal levels. Although the need for additional funding is clear, debate persists regarding just how to strike a balance between the various funding sources.

In recent years, the water and wastewater sectors have had to make do with reduced or flat federal contributions to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) and the Drinking Water SRF. However, some in Congress have sought and continue to seek to authorize greater federal investments in the funds. For example, the Water Quality Financing Act (H.R. 720) passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March would authorize $14 billion for the Clean Water SRF for fiscal years 2008 through 2011. Yet it remains to be seen whether federal appropriations would match any increases in authorized SRF levels, said Sandra Ralston, senior associate in the Charleston, S.C., office of Malcolm Pirnie (White Plains, N.Y.). “Revenue would have to be found somewhere in the U.S. budget, and the revenue outlook is not good,” she said.

Furthermore, some note that increased SRF funding would only go so far toward meeting the needs of many utilities, particularly as state and federal requirements continually become more stringent. The Hallsdale–Powell Utility District (Knoxville, Tenn.) has relied on SRF loans to fund infrastructure improvements, benefiting from the SRF program’s lower interest rates as compared to regular bonds, said Dennis Cardwell, the district’s vice president and chief operating officer. By using SRF loans in tandem with a comprehensive rate model, the district “has been able to save money for the ratepayers,” he noted. However, the district still has had to raise its rates significantly to pay for the improvements and finance the debt service, an option that Cardwell says is difficult, if not impossible, for smaller agencies. “Most of the smaller utilities out here can’t do that,” he said. As a result, simply boosting funding levels to the SRF programs would fail to solve the nation’s water infrastructure needs, he said.

Unless interest rates on SRF loans are made “very favorable,” funding provided by SRF programs generates “little or no stimulus to address the needed improvements,” said Billy Turner, president of the Columbus (Ga.) Water Works. Given typical interest rates and the requirement that loans be repaid in 20 years, an SRF loan “requires higher initial water and sewer rates than are needed for conventional bonds funded with a 30-year payback,” he said.

Trusting in a Trust Fund
For some, the clear solution is a substantial increase in the amount of federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure, preferably in the form of grants rather than loans. “We need a major stimulus to bring systems up and hopefully keep them up to a good standard,” Turner said. Ideally, such a stimulus would consist of federal grants to utilities to cover up to 50% of the capital costs of needed improvements, he said. Without such a program, he said, the nation risks losing the significant gains that have been achieved in the past several decades. For many wastewater agencies, the needs are particularly acute, as much of their infrastructure is reaching the end of its design life. “We built a lot of this infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s now showing its age,” Turner said.

For Turner, a proposed federal clean water trust fund modeled on existing trust funds used to finance transportation and aviation infrastructure offers a potential means of meeting the needs of water and wastewater agencies, particularly those attempting to implement large-scale projects intended to address problems relating to combined or sanitary sewer overflows. “That’s the only program that I see that is really going to provide a significant stimulus,” he said.

Kirk Rowland, division head of water and sewer maintenance for the Town of Tonawanda, N.Y., agreed. Serving a population of approximately 70,000, Tonawanda faces the prospect of having to spend more than $300 million during the next 20 to 30 years to address sanitary sewer overflows. Such outlays would come on top of efforts to maintain and upgrade other elements of the town’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure. “We’ve worked hard to keep our systems in good working order,” Rowland said. “But the amount of money put back in the ground is pennies compared to what needs to be put back in the ground.” Without federal funding, he said, the upgrades are “going to really hurt ratepayers.” A federal trust fund is the “only way I’d see long-term infrastructure funding happening,” he said.

However, the trust fund concept has yet to progress beyond the conceptual phase, in large part because a politically viable funding source has yet to be identified. Selecting such a source “has been the political sticking point,” Ralston said.

If enacted, H.R. 720 would require the U.S. comptroller general to conduct a study of available funding mechanisms and funding sources for such a trust fund. Such a report could help boost the prospects for a trust fund, which currently enjoys only limited support on Capitol Hill, Sinicropi said. With few politicians eager to single out industries or activities to be taxed to support the fund, “the politics of a trust fund have not coalesced to the point that it’s a viable political option right now,” she said.

Considering Other Legislative Options
Other legislation pending in Congress offers the prospect of additional funding sources for infrastructure. For example, the National Infrastructure Bank Act (S. 1926) would create an independent entity to provide financing in the form of subsidies, loan guarantees, and bonds for infrastructure projects with a potential federal investment of at least $75 million. Although such a program likely would be worthwhile, it appears to be directed at large-scale projects only, said Brian Wheeler, executive director of the Toho Water Authority (Kissimmee, Fla.). “There would be many projects left out of the picture,” he said.

Another bill recently introduced in the House — The Clean Renewable Water Supply Bond Act (H.R. 3452) — would authorize the use of a new bond program intended to stimulate the development of new water supplies, including recycled water, desalination, and remediation of impaired groundwater supplies. Because the legislation would assist efforts to develop new water supplies, JEA, a regional provider of electricity, water, and wastewater services based in Jacksonville, Fla., supports the bill, said Suzanne Goss, JEA’s government relations specialist. Faced with requirements to develop additional sources of drinking water, JEA is “very much in favor” of H.R. 3452, she said.

Rethinking the Paradigm
As water supplies become increasingly scarce, water and wastewater agencies must do more than simply advocate greater levels of infrastructure funding, said Amy Shanker, executive vice president of Black and Veatch’s global water business. Merely tallying the cost to replace existing infrastructure is a “fundamentally flawed approach” that fails to address the likelihood of future water shortages and negative effects associated with climate change, he said. Instead, water and wastewater agencies must develop sustainable alternatives to the current approach to providing water and wastewater services, which typically involve pumping water great distances, treating it to ultrapure standards even though only 1% is consumed, and treating and disposing of the rest. “When you look at this paradigm, it cannot continue as water becomes less and less available,” Shanker said.

Instead, a new paradigm is needed in which water is treated to certain levels based on its intended use, Shanker said, with greater emphasis on point-of-use and reuse scenarios. At the same time, wastewater treatment “should become more energy self-sufficient,” he said, and efforts must be made to recover nutrients for reuse rather than spending vast sums to eliminate them from treatment plant effluent.

Creating more sustainable approaches to water and wastewater treatment will require a “new business model” for utilities in which public and private entities cooperate more extensively than they ever have, Shanker said. Of course, many details remain to be worked out regarding how such arrangements would operate, he said, but “that is the kind of debate that is necessary in the United States right now.”

— Jay Landers, WE&T



U.S. Coastal Nutrient Loading Continues; Future Outlook Dim

 

Continuing population growth in U.S. coastal watersheds threatens the health of these waters, according to a recent report by researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (Cambridge, Md.). Ongoing management efforts have helped stem the tide of nutrient pollution to the coasts, but overall conditions in the nation’s estuaries have not improved and are projected to worsen.

NOAA reported widespread coastal eutrophication in a 1999 national assessment, and the researchers found little change in this latest survey, titled Effects of Nutrient Enrichment in the Nation’s Estuaries: A Decade of Change. It examines eutrophic conditions in 141 U.S. estuaries along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, looking at how and why conditions have changed between the early 1990s and early 2000s. Of the 99 estuaries that had adequate data for evaluation, the report shows that two-thirds have moderate to high-level nutrient-related impacts.

 “While the accumulation of nutrients … has been stable in most of our estuaries, conditions are likely to worsen,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere at the U.S. Department of Commerce and NOAA administrator, on the report’s release in late July. “The study helps confirm that we must reinvigorate our collective efforts to address nutrient pollution, and that an ecosystem approach — one that encompasses both land and aquatic environments — is required for improving the health of our coastal waters.”

Nutrient pollution or eutrophication occurs when too many nutrients are added to coastal waters, where they stimulate excessive algal growth, said Suzanne Bricker, a physical scientist and oceanographer at NOAA and lead author of the report. Sources of these excess inputs can come from a host of human activities, ranging from atmospheric deposition of air pollutants caused by emissions from coal-fired power plants and transportation, to direct discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants and storm drains, to runoff from urban and agricultural nonpoint sources. The net effects, Bricker added, are often drastic reductions in dissolved oxygen that can threaten marine life, at times resulting in hypoxia, or “dead zones,” and the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, which provides critical habitat for a wide range of commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important species.

Overall, the report concludes that most of the problems observed in estuaries are related to these human activities. It also highlights the need for increased federal, state, local, and industry partnerships to find well-balanced solutions that provide measurable benefits to all involved.

U.S. Coastal Health: Where It Stands
Moderate to high-level nutrient-related impacts were reported in systems from all coasts. However, the Mid-Atlantic region, which stretches from Cape Cod to Chesapeake Bay, is the most impaired. The North Atlantic region, extending from Maine to Cape Cod, was the least impaired proportionally.

In the South Atlantic region covering North Carolina to Florida, the report lists most of the estuaries in the moderate to low eutrophic condition category. The Gulf of Mexico region, encompassing systems from Florida to Texas, as well as the nutrient plume from the Mississippi River basin, which drains the Midwestern Farm Belt, exhibits high-level eutrophic conditions. In fact, the dead zone resulting from this year’s plume ranks among three largest such zones measured since 1985, Bricker noted. Nevertheless, Gulf of Mexico estuaries are proportionally less affected than those in the heavily populated Mid-Atlantic, the report finds. In the Pacific region, the researchers had little nutrient load data available, making it difficult to provide an overall assessment. Most estuaries with high to moderate eutrophic conditions in this region are found in Washington and central California.

Conditions in most of the systems changed very little since the 1990s. “Slightly more than half of the systems have the same symptoms and the same level of eutrophication as they did back then,” Bricker explained.

The suite of symptoms Bricker and her colleagues evaluated were increased chlorophyll a, macroalgae and nuisance or toxic blooms, decreased dissolved oxygen, and submerged aquatic vegetation loss. They then determined eutrophic condition based on the occurrence, spatial coverage, and frequency of these symptoms.

Looking ahead, the report predicts that conditions in 65% of the nation’s estuaries likely will worsen in the next decade, while only 20% will improve. The remaining 15% will remain unchanged.

“Population increases are a big part of it,” Bricker said. NOAA projections based on U.S. Census Bureau data indicate a 12% coastal population increase by 2020. Correspondingly, the researchers predict increases in nutrient loads from wastewater treatment, septic tanks, and agricultural and urban runoff. However, some water quality improvements also are expected as a result of reductions in combined sewer overflows and upstream sources of nutrients.

Stemming Nutrient Flows
“If we’re going to solve this problem, it has to be solved by everybody in our country,” Lautenbacher said. “Everybody needs to understand that they contribute to this issue, and if we work together as a nation, we can solve it.”

The federal government already is leading the way, Lautenbacher added, with a number of interagency cooperative measures under President George W. Bush’s Ocean Action Plan. NOAA, for example, has fostered regional governance associations in coastal areas to get citizens involved in working on this issue, Lautenbacher noted. The agency also is working with its state partners through 27 national estuarine reserve programs to train coastal managers in nonpoint source pollution and best watershed practices.

For the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “one of our highest priorities is to work with our state partners under the Clean Water Act (CWA) to establish nutrient criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus,” said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Water. “This is a critically important step, because those numeric numbers can then be translated into enforceable permits and measurable progress.”

Another key EPA focus, Grumbles noted, is exploring and advancing market-based approaches. “We’re keeping CWA regulations in place, a critical bedrock tool for progress, but we also need to do more,” he said, particularly with respect to nonpoint source pollution. This includes water quality trading, he added, noting the partnership between EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to advance this measure to make trades more cost-effective between point sources and nonpoint sources.

USDA, for its part, has been working with farmers to help them implement conservation practices that reduce nutrient runoff and leaching, especially in the Mississippi River basin, said Mark Rey, the agency’s undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment. The result: Cropland erosion rates in that basin alone have been reduced by 42% in the last two decades, Rey said. Similar efforts are under way in river systems that empty into other estuaries, such as Chesapeake Bay.

USDA also has been calling on the U.S. Congress to adopt the administration’s 2007 Farm Bill proposal, which would increase conservation spending by $7.8 billion. “The proposal would better streamline and package conservation programs to achieve more effective results,” Rey said.

Hard-Won Successes
Despite the dim prognosis for estuaries, “it’s important to keep in mind that there are success stories,” Grumbles said. Municipalities in a number of watersheds have focused on controlling various nutrient sources, such as septic systems, which has led to real water quality improvements.

Bricker agreed, pointing to several case studies where aggressive management has reversed the trend of declining coastal health. The Tampa Bay estuary is a prime example, she said. Regulations requiring advanced wastewater treatment and reduced stormwater discharges, as well as best management practices initiated by the phosphate industry, significantly curbed nutrient loading. As a result, sea grasses have rebounded in the bay, with the highest growth in acreage since 1950 observed in 2004, Bricker noted.

These types of successes show that “development and implementation of management measures at a local scale have worked,” Bricker added, further proving that conditions can be improved if effective action is taken.

Further Steps Necessary
Unfortunately, these success stories too often are isolated cases, said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. More aggressive, integrated management efforts must be undertaken to achieve widespread reductions in eutrophic conditions.

“Research on the causes, consequences, and solutions for coastal eutrophication tends to be locally focused,” Boesch said. For example, Chesapeake Bay gets a lot of attention, but no national framework exists to integrate research being done in the farm fields and on what goes on in the rivers that transport these nutrients to the coast with research on how coastal ecosystems respond.

“We also need to move more aggressively in implementing the Clean Air Act,” Boesch said, to reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions that are winding up in coastal waters through atmospheric deposition.
Arguably though, the most challenging problem lies in reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture, which is the major cause of eutrophication in Chesapeake Bay, many southeastern estuaries, and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. “Substantial federal and state investments and programs are helping farmers reduce nutrient losses, but at the end of the day, they’re not yet as effective as they really need to be,” with respect to the results being observed in rivers and coastal waters, Boesch said.

To achieve real solutions, the report also recommends

  • capitalizing on new monitoring technologies, including global observing systems, remote sensing, and Web resources, to improve comprehensive assessments of eutrophication status;
  • focusing research on improving assessment capabilities, resolving uncertainty, and establishing monitoring criteria and pollution thresholds;
  • engaging resource managers, researchers, policy-makers, and communities with frequent assessment updates at local, regional, and national levels; and
  • developing tools to quantify the effectiveness of mitigation strategies in response to policy actions.

For more information, see the estuarine eutrophication report at ccma.nos.noaa.gov/publications/eutroupdate.

— Kris Christen, WE&T