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U.S. Drinking Water Requires Hefty Investment

Aerial view of a water main break located in New York City in 2003
The nation experiences an average of 700 water main breaks a day—like this one in New York City in 2003—and will require an investment of $384 billion through 2030 for service to remain reliable, according to a new report. AP Photo/Malcolm Linton

A new report indicates that the drinking water systems in the United States require a total investment of $384 billion through 2030.

July 30, 2013—The nation’s aging drinking water infrastructure suffers an average of 700 water main breaks a day and will require an investment of $384 billion through 2030 in order for service to remain reliable, according to a new report released recently by The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This is the fifth “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment” report prepared by the EPA as required by the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments. The assessment estimates the needs of 73,400 water systems across the country and focuses on expansion, replacement, and rehabilitation projects eligible for funding through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF).

“Drinking water infrastructure is central to protecting the public health of the American people. There is a very significant infrastructure needs gap here,” says Peter Grevatt, Ph.D., the director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. “I don’t think anyone would say that 250,000 water main breaks [a year] is an acceptable level of system failure. I think that suggests that we really do have some challenges here as a nation around the funding levels for this work.”

The nation’s aging transmission and distribution systems represent 64.4 percent of the total need, at $247.5 billion. This figure represents the advancing age of some systems, the extensive amount of buried infrastructure, and the great expense to repair or replace it, especially in urban areas. The EPA calculated the figures based on an assumption of a minimum 10 percent replacement rate over a 20-year period, although some systems are undergoing projects that cover a higher percentage than that.

“The minimum is what many of the utilities are doing now in grappling with the funding they have available,” Grevatt says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we think that rate of pipe replacement in going to be sufficient for the long term.

“There are some very old pipes in the nation. There are still some wooden mains. I think probably when they were built those folks would have been thrilled to know they [are still] serving the public. But we don’t want to bank on that continuing to be the case,” he adds.

Treatment facilities have the next-largest need at $72.5 billion, followed by storage at $39.5 billion. Source projects represent $20.5 billion.

The EPA needs assessment has held relatively constant, with adjustments for inflation, following the 2003 assessment, when the agency altered some of its methods to better reflect the practices of water utilities in replacing underground infrastructure.

The report notes other estimates of the need from other sources. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the annual drinking water infrastructure investment requirement at between $16.6 billion and $28.6 billion. That would correspond to a 20-year requirement of $331.2 billion to $571.7 billion. The Water Infrastructure Network has also estimated the 20-year investment need at $570 billion.

In the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE gives the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a grade of D. The report card cites 2012 figures from the American Water Works Association (AWWA) that concludes investments to the nation’s 1 million mi of water mains alone could be spread over 25 years at a cost of approximately $1 trillion.

The EPA needs assessment presents need by system size, revealing that medium-sized systems—those that serve from 3,301 to 100,000 persons—have the greatest need at $161.8 billion. Large systems have a total need of $145.1 billion. Those numbers primarily reflect that there are a large number of medium-sized systems in the nation, the report states.

Grevatt says the EPA has seen great progress in water utilities adopting asset management plans and deploying technology that will enable them to know when infrastructure is reaching the end of its lifespan and replace it before there is a failure.

“Clearly responding to a break is going to be a much more expensive proposition than conducting a planned replacement of a portion of pipe,” Grevatt says. “If you are dealing with a water main break—depending on the size—you could have flooding of local businesses, loss of revenue from stores that need to close, traffic disruptions. You have to bring in a utility crew, oftentimes in overtime—it could be at 3 in the morning as opposed to when you otherwise might plan for a job digging up a pipe.

“Asset management has been one of the focal points of our office over the last several years is working with utilities,” Grevatt adds. “We have to try to anticipate where there is going to be failure rather than waiting to see where the water starts to come out of the ground.”

The full EPA report is available online.


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