This editorial letter originally appeared in WWD October 2021 issue as "The Utility Conundrum"
As I write this editorial letter, the drought in the U.S. West continues on a path toward extreme water scarcity. Wildfires continue to rage. Water resources are scarce, particularly for agricultural and industrial users. And for the first time ever, the federal government instituted an emergency declaration due to the levels in Lake Mead, which are now the lowest seen in four decades.
Meanwhile, the southern and eastern U.S. were victim to Hurricane Ida, which ravaged New Orleans and other coastal communities, and the aftershock of the storm led to extreme rainfall in the Northeast, notably New York City. In some cases, lift stations and sewers stopped working entirely because they were unable to handle these flows due to heavy rain.
It’s a scary situation to witness, and as we’ve seen in the past four to five years, extreme weather events have become a major challenge for water and wastewater utilities. It poses significant questions, some of which are philosophical, and most of which come down to a numbers game. Do you prepare for the 50-year, 100-year and 500-year storms? How much do you invest in the solutions for this? Do you oversize your lift stations, placing a continuous burden on your community to run pumps that are too large?
And how does this resilience interface with the other demands and mandates coming down the pike, such as the Lead & Copper Rule Revision and the current push of PFAS as hazardous chemicals in the Safe Drinking Water Act? With money so tight for so many utilities, it feels like an either/or situation: either fix lead service lines or prepare for the next weather event.
This leads me once again to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is set for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. Funding from this bill, should it pass and be signed into law, will be unlike anything the U.S. water and wastewater industry has ever seen. To put it in context, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office report on federal infrastructure spending, federal spending from 1956 to 2014 on Water Resources ($269 billion) and Water Utilities ($163 billion) was $432 billion combined. The proposed funding in the infrastructure bill is $55 billion.
That is an enormous sum of money in historical context. So perhaps those conundrums won’t be conundrums for much longer.