United States Earns a “D” on 2017 Drinking Water Infrastructure Report Card

United States civil infrastructure is deteriorating.

Aging and groaning under increasing strain year after year, massive investments are necessary in the near future to ensure that our nation's infrastructure can keep pace with a growing population and continue to operate in the way Americans have grown to expect: without much trouble.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the United States must invest approximately $3.6 trillion in infrastructure repairs and improvements by 2020. In 2013 it was estimated that our country is shy of this amount by $1.6 trillion. Particularly maligned sectors include energy, transit, aviation, levees, dams, roads, schools, waterways, hazardous waste, wastewater, and, yes, drinking water.

All of the above sectors received a D+ score—or worse— in the most recent ASCE Infrastructure Report Card in 2017. The overall U.S. infrastructure grade was set at a D+, which not so inspiringly manages to be an improvement over the D grade the civil engineering body awarded U.S. infrastructure in 2009.

The drinking water category specifically was awarded a meager “D” in the 2017 report.

It’s clear that many challenges are ahead, but because we’re a water-focused company, let’s take a brief look at the problem of U.S. drinking water infrastructure and what it means for your water quality and your wallet.

What is the U.S. Drinking Water Infrastructure Situation?

The country’s drinking water infrastructure is now approaching the end of its useful life.

After all, U.S. infrastructure was originally constructed approximately 75 to 100 years ago. It was never meant to hold up for much longer than it has. We've more than reached our “due date” for a required infrastructure overhaul on many pipes, mains, and channels. 

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) documents that there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks every year in the United States. If one were to assume that each pipe required replacement, the cost from this alone would likely reach $1 trillion (per AWWA).

Fortunately, drinking water quality overall remains “high,” particularly in relation to other parts of the world. Still, there’s no getting past the fact that many of the mains and pipes in the U.S. are now more than a century old, meaning they require large scale investments sooner rather than later.

And despite an overall high quality of drinking water, cities like Flint, Michigan demonstrate that aging pipes can lead to dangerous health problems when not managed properly. If drinking water infrastructure needs continue to be ignored, water quality in this country will eventually experience a sharp downturn.

What the Government Can Do About the Drinking Water Infrastructure Situation

"We must commit today to investing in modern, efficient infrastructure systems to position the U.S. for economic prosperity," said ASCE President Gregory E. DiLoreto, P.E. to CBS News. "Infrastructure can either be the engine for long-term economic growth and employment, or, it can jeopardize our nation's standing if poor roads, deficient bridges, and failing waterways continue to hurt our economy."

Indeed, the best thing we can hope for on a macro level are government infrastructure investments. Elizabeth McNichol, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says:

There’s lots to be done. Investments in well-maintained roads, railroads, airports and ports, as well as well-functioning water and sewer systems, help businesses and communities thrive. State-of-the art schools free from crowding and safety hazards improve educational opportunities for future workers.

McNichol also suggests that states target investment in their low-income areas, as she notes that these localities are at greatest risk for problems such as aging lead pipes that are known to leach lead into drinking water—a well-established human health risk.

 The ASCE estimates there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks every year in the U.S. Put differently, our aging pipes are wasting 2.1 trillion gallons of water a year. Put another way, Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates approximately 6 billion gallons of water is lost each day. These staggering numbers demand immediate action, but there remains a looming question: who will pay?

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Who will pay: private, public, or private equity?

Public, private, or private equity. These are the three main modes of financing infrastructure development in the U.S, with the latter being relatively new and potentially controversial.

Public sector funding often comes from tax-dollars through propositions in states like California or federally-sponsored bonds. Essentially this type of infrastructure financing is through taxpayer dollars.

Private sector funding requires companies to invest and operate water infrastructure projects. Cost-recovery for projects is often passed on to consumers through their water bill.

A third financing option is the basis for the public infrastructure funding strategy of the current president: private equity. Private equity financing brings bankers and hedge funds together with municipalities to finance projects. Though initially appealing–cities can get large sums of capital up front at low interest rates–cities experimenting with private equity water infrastructure investment have frequently found themselves beholden to shareholder values rather than citizen values of safe, affordable drinking water. Cost recovery for projects is often attended with an agreed-upon fixed return on investment for the investors. Private equity funding is currently a minority of drinking water infrastructure investment, and several deals have made headlines for controversial price hikes and poor management oversight.

What You Can Do About Your Drinking Water

While major investments by federal and state governments are critical to the U.S. drinking water infrastructure’s health in the near future, there’s no distinct timetable for their implementation.

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for authorities to take action or learn about how our D-grade water infrastructure impacts your water quality. Check out Tap Score to learn more.

 

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