Sep 05, 2007

New Laws, Old Systems, but Who Will Pay?

As the nation’s infrastructure ages and legislation tightens its grip, water and wastewater systems around the country are faced with pressing funding needs. But the question is: How do communities that are running out of money comply with new restrictions? Moreover, how do they sustain their current infrastructure needs?

I recently spoke with a senior environmental engineer in the Midwest who told me that although the majority of his current needs are closely related to compliance, there is the ongoing Watch List he has to tend to as well. He explained that the list is a record of systems that have reached or exceeded their lifespan and should be replaced in the next few years. However, due to the lack of funding and because those systems are still operational, the utility would first look for what is available and examine the upcoming costs before eventually replacing the system.

While this is a common scenario among water and wastewater utilities, the concern is that facilities continue to operate less efficiently and are unable to take advantage of potential long-term savings because of the lack of funds upfront. The ongoing dilemma of, “Who will pick up the tab?” continues.

The general public is not exactly supportive of higher utility rates or a tax hike that can help pay for some of the major capital items either.

It is unfortunate when it takes something like the grim events in Minneapolis or the New York steam pipe explosion to raise public awareness about the crumbling state of our infrastructure. It is hard not to state the obvious—proper maintenance of the infrastructure is expensive, but the costs are only higher when the infrastructure fails.

And while officials investigate the cause of the collapse of the 40-year-old bridge in Minneapolis, I can’t help but wonder: What is the actual useful life of our infrastructure?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), treatment plants typically have a useful life of 20 to 50 years before they require expansion or rehabilitation. Furthermore, the EPA states that pipes have life cycles that can range from 15 to more than 100 years depending on the type of material and the environment.

Currently, the EPA projects that more than $260 billion is needed to replace the aging water infrastructure; unfortunately, many communities are strapped for cash and will not be able to afford to upgrade their systems, some of which are close to a century old.

As infrastructure continues to age and regulatory requirements become more demanding and complex, the media and public will continue to react and become more aware of new boil-water notices, sewage overflows and beach closings. That doesn’t mean they will want to dip into their pockets and pay the price of keeping U.S. water infrastructure afloat. Meanwhile the question remains: Who will pay?

While providing an all-encompassing answer is difficult, attending the upcoming WEFTEC.07 in San Diego, Oct. 13 to 17 is a good start. See you there!

About the author

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. She can be reached at 847/391-1011 or by e-mail at [email protected]