Bob Crossen is senior managing editor for Water & Wastes Digest. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].
The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Infrastructure Report Card graded U.S. infrastructure a C-, accounting for 17 categories.
Drinking water infrastructure received a C-, which is an increase from the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card when the category received a D. Wastewater received a D+, the same grade it received four years ago. And for the first time ever, Storm Water was included in the report card, an it received a D.
The overall grade of C- is the first time U.S. infrastructure has had an overall score in the C range in 20 years. In a press release, ASCE leadership considers this overall grade one of mediocrity, and that it highlights deficient areas and verticals that need more attention.
“This not a report card anyone would be proud to take home,” said ASCE Executive Director Thomas Smith in the ASCE press release. “We have not made significant enough investments to maintain infrastructure that in some cases was built more than 50 years ago. As this study shows, we risk significant economic losses, higher costs to consumers, businesses and manufacturers – and our quality of life – if we don’t act urgently. When we fail to invest in infrastructure, we pay the price.”
According to the ASCE press release, there are some major funding gaps. The association also shared predictions based on its studies and understanding of all infrastructure categories.
First, the infrastructure gap in the U.S. continues to grow in relation to long-term investment. That gap was $2.1 trillion over the course of the past decade. ASCE notes that its most recent study indicates that gap is now $2.59 trillion or $259 billion per year over a 10-year period.
Second, the longer the U.S. waits to invest in infrastructure, the bleaker the future in the U.S. will look. ASCE notes that “by 2039 the U.S. economy will lose $10 trillion in growth and exports will decline by $2.4 trillion” without significant investment. The press release goes on to say that by 2039 more than 3 million jobs will be lost and that “each American household will bear $3,300 in hidden costs per year.”
As such, ASCE has called on Congress to take bold action on a large scale to immediately address the shortcomings of U.S. infrastructure. When accounting for all three water sectors — drinking water, wastewater and storm water — “an economic analysis by ASCE shows a water-related infrastructure investment gap of $434 billion over 10 years for drinking water, wastewater, and storm water combined.”
Drinking Water Grade:
Drinking water infrastructure received a score of C-, an increase from the score of D in the last report card.
ASCE reports that 2.2 million miles of pipe deliver water to Americans across the country. And annually there is an estimated 6 million gallons of water lost due to water main breaks.
Water utilities have shown progress in addressing these issues, and according to ASCE, around one-third of all utilities now have a robust asset management plan, compared to 20% of utilities in the previous report.
Funding is one of the areas in which the report states there could be major improvement. In fact to raise the grade, ASCE calls for tripling the annual appropriations for Drinking Water State Revolving Funds and fully funding the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act along with U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs.
The report specifically notes a federal shortfall in drinking water infrastructure investment. In 1977, the federal government accounted for 63% of capital spending for drinking water investment. In 2017, it accounted for 9%.
Wastewater infrastructure received a score of D+. This is the same score it received four years ago in the 2017 report.
According to ASCE, there are more than 16,000 wastewater facilities in the U.S. Of those facilities, 15% have met or exceeded their capacities while the rest on average run at around 81% of capacity. ASCE states there are 800,000 miles of public sewers and 500,000 miles of private laterals in the U.S., much of which is reaching the end of its service life. Addressing financing for operations and maintenance will be a critical part of addressing that aging infrastructure to raise the grade for wastewater.
The Drinking Water portion of the report noted how important asset management programs had been in addressing concerns in that sector, and for Wastewater, robust asset management systems are the first tenant to be listed for raising the grade. It says wastewater utilities must conduct continuous assessment of wastewater assets to create a plan of action that will address aging infrastructure.
Storm Water Grade:
2021 is the first year that Storm Water has been included in the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. Storm Water received a D.
The report notes there are, “few dedicated funding sources, complicated governance and ownership structures, expansive networks of aging assets, increasingly stringent water quality regulations, and concerning climate change projections.” It also notes that the performance expectations for storm water systems are also declining.
Water Environment Federation also recently released a report noting that storm water infrastructure has an $8.5 billion annual pitfall in funding. That two major associations pointing this out shows an increasing need for resources related to storm water management, especially as urbanization leads to more impervious paving surfaces and flooding as a result.
During the live report card reveal event, Rebecca Shelton, co-vice chair of the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Committee, did note that storm water utility establishment is occurring more frequently. According to the report, more than 40 states now have at least one storm water utility.
She also noted that approximately 600,000 miles of streams and rivers in the U.S. are considered impaired, and that storm water management will be a critical tool in turning that impairment around.
Water: Partnerships That Work Panel
In the afternoon during the ASCE six-hour live event revealing the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, Greg Diloreto, chair emeritus of the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Committee, hosted a panel discussion on water partnerships.
Panelists for this event included the newly appointed U.S. EPA Office Of Water Principal Deputy Administrator Radhika Fox. Fox was the former US Water Alliance CEO before being appointed by President Joe Biden to the EPA Office of Water. Also on the panel were Susan Moisio, global water director for Jacobs; Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director for the National League of Cities; and Pam Elardo, deputy commissioner for the bureau of wastewater treatment for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
Anthony noted that local leaders have shouldered the burden for water and wastewater issues for too long, and now is the time for federal investment.
“We can’t do it alone as local leaders. Local leaders have been at the forefront of this during the pandemic.” he said. “We need the federal government to recommit to funding local government.”
He said this investment will help to address the affordability issues leaders in the industry continue to see and hear about. On a similar note, Moisio hammered home on the term One Water, noting how framing water issues through that lens solves problems beyond infrastructure, notably access, affordability and equity. She stressed that using wastewater as a resource will become crucial for the future of U.S. infrastructure in the sector.
Elardo talked about how wastewater systems open the doors to new sustainability opportunities, specifically in terms of capturing and using biogas and in accepting food waste to be used for energy purposes.
“We create clean water,” she said. “We create a resource for our community.”
In the closing remarks for each panelist, Fox spoke about how this is a moment of convergence for the water industry.
“This is water’s moment,” Fox said. “We are hitting a tipping point where we’ve got to make an investment in the next generation of infrastructure.”