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EPA Says U.S. Requires Significant Spending on Wastewater Infrastructure

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

The EPA reported to Congress that the United States needs to spend $271 billion over the course of 20 years to maintain and improve wastewater systems in order to protect health and safety.

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The vast majority of the spending required to keep the nation’s wastewater systems in good working order will need to be spent on treatment plant improvements, new or repaired conveyance systems, and recycled water distribution systems, according to the EPA. Wikimedia Commons/dbking

February 2, 2016—Infrastructure—particularly wastewater infrastructure—is too often out of sight and out of mind for most residents. In the United States, unlike so many other countries around the world, fully functioning wastewater systems are taken as a given, forgotten until something goes wrong. But such systems require continual maintenance and significant capital investments if they are to continue to operate properly, and that is just what the most recent results of a survey conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have shown. 

The 2012 survey, which was analyzed and reported to Congress last month, focused on the capital needs of the United States and its territories over a period of 20 years. Although the report captures the needs reported by states and territories for the period from 2012 through 2032, most respondents only reported their needs through 2017, so much of this spending covers projects that are already planned or are under way.

"Our survey shows that $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation's wastewater infrastructure. That includes the pipes that carry wastewater to treatment plants, the technology that treats the water, and methods for managing stormwater runoff," said Joel Beauvais, the acting deputy assistant administrator for water at the EPA, during a recorded speech on an EPA website that is dedicated to the effort, the EPA's 16th Clean Watersheds NeedsSurvey .

"The only way to have clean and reliable water in our communities is to have infrastructure that is up to the task," Beauvais said. "The U.S. has made tremendous progress in modernizing our treatment plants and pipes in recent decades, but this survey tells us that a great deal of work remains." Indeed, ASCE gave the nation's wastewater infrastructure a grade of D+ in its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure.

Approximately 75 percent of the needs reported by the EPA cover wastewater facilities, including treatment plant improvements, new or repaired conveyance systems, and recycled water distribution systems. Approximately 18 percent of the needs are for combined sewer overflow corrections, while the remaining 7 percent cover stormwater management, according to the report.

While the largest documented needs came from New York and California, each reporting more than $25 billion in necessary projects, the highest per-capita numbers came from the District of Columbia, where some $4,472 will need to be spent per person, and Guam, with a required spending of $2,497 per person. These regions ranked far above the national average of $868 per capita.

The fact that such a large investment is required within such a short timeframe is unsurprising, says Jeanette A. Brown, P.E., BCEE, F.ASCE, D.WRE, currently a research assistant professor at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, and formerly the executive director of Connecticut's Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority. "Our treatment plant operators do an excellent job in operating treatment plants—even very old ones—to consistently meet their permits," Brown says. However, she adds, "Many treatment plants were built using the old EPA construction grants program of the 1970s and 1980s. Many need upgrading to modern, more energy-efficient equipment and to meet new water-quality standards. Furthermore, sewers in many communities can be 100 years old and need upgrading, [and] combined sewers need to be separated."

"The biggest challenge facing treatment systems is funding not only necessary capital improvements, but ongoing maintenance," says Paul A. Bizier, P.E., F.ASCE, F.EWRI, the water services chief engineer at the Nashville, Tennessee-based engineering and architecture firm Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon, Inc. "In addition to the expenditures the EPA has identified, there is probably an equal amount lurking in our wastewater systems as deferred maintenance," he notes. 

"We need to make sure that we all understand the real value of clean water, and understand the need to properly fund our systems—including maintenance, replacements, and upgrades—to produce this clean water," Bizier adds. "If we don't, this deferred maintenance will require even higher expenditures in the future."

And funding must come from a variety of sources, he adds. "Federal funding of improvements is important, especially in addressing new issues, as it allows utilities to focus existing resources on maintenance—but it won't solve all of our issues."

While the EPA survey looks solely at the costs of maintaining and developing infrastructure to meet existing water-quality requirements, there is also an enormous untapped potential within wastewater systems for resource-recovery systems and energy generation that could offset operational costs. 

These resources include the chemical energy embedded in the water, such as in the carbon-based waste products that arrive within wastewater. "You could anaerobically digest them and produce a biogas that could be used to generate electricity," Brown says. The heat from influent wastewater and the kinetic energy of the product wastewater could also be harnessed, she says. Such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorous could also be captured and reused. "Just like we recycle cans and bottles and things of that nature, we can recycle the material that's in the wastewater that has a value to it," Brown says.

"There is a lot of promise in these technologies, and I think they'll have a long-term impact," Bizier notes. But he also offers a word of caution: "The sticking point on this is the cost," he says. "When a utility is struggling just to fix their sewer-collection system, how much 'green' surcharge can they afford?" he asks.

The survey was the 16 th that the EPA has conducted since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. Every four years—in partnership with the states, territories, and the District of Columbia—the EPA estimates the capital investment necessary to ensure that the publicly owned treatment works within the nation and its territories meet the water quality objectives of the Clean Water Act. All but South Carolina, America Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands participated in the most recent effort.



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