Disheartening 'D'

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2013 Report Card for America’s infrastructure is out, and the results are not much better than those four years ago. According to the report, the nation’s infrastructure’s average grade has improved slightly, from a D to a D+. Both water and wastewater showed minimal improvement, coming in with a disheartening D, up from a D- in 2009. While the slight improvement is a step in the right direction, a D grade is hardly favorable.

The past four years, however, have not been “business as usual.” At the end of 2009, the nation saw average unemployment rates of 10%, and home prices continued to fall. Federal funding cuts to the water and wastewater State Revolving Funds programs also have grown deeper since the last ASCE report.

In the meantime, our water and wastewater infrastructure continues to age. Significant investments—more than $1 trillion—are required in coming decades if we are to maintain essential water and wastewater systems, according to the American Water Works Assn. report “Buried No Longer,” released in 2012. The Congressional Budget Office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other groups have estimated that it could take more than $300 billion to address the nation’s sewage collection and treatment infrastructure needs over 20 years to keep our surface waters safe and clean. This is twice the current level of investment by all levels of government, according to the ASCE report.

While the need to invest in infrastructure continues to grow, and there is a strong belief that infrastructure funding is particularly important in maintaining economic growth, levels of public investment have been falling since the 1970s. 

Additionally, utilities continue to feel the impact of tightening regulatory requirements. New rules that ensure public safety and focus on environmental protection put pressure on barebones budgets and typically result in less money for necessary routine maintenance. 

At this point, improving the nation’s infrastructure will require a multipronged approach. To address the challenges at hand, utilities will have to continue to evaluate the full cost of providing a safe supply of drinking water to their customers and determine how to set water rates that reflect those costs. The State Revolving Funds will require additional federal support. Our industry will have to push for access to funds at U.S. Department of the Treasury rates to support loans for water projects. But, most importantly, investment in water and sanitation projects will have to shift from public to private participation. 

The technologies to deliver and collect water and wastewater in a healthy, sustainable way for generations to come are available. It is time to make infrastructure a priority. 

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. Simeonova can be reached at nsimeonova@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1011.

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