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Aging U.S. Water Infrastructure Presents Engineering, Financial Challenges

By Lynn Novelli

Resiliency and flexibility are the new watchwords of the U.S. water industry, but aging infrastructure and budget shortfalls are barriers to achieving them, according to a recent report.

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Such desalination methods as reverse-osmosis, used in this facility in Barcelona, can be part of the solution to the challenges facing the U.S. water industry, which according to a new study include aging infrastructure, climate change, and funding shortfalls. Wikimedia Commons/James Grellier

August 9, 2016—This spring, Black & Veatch—an engineering, consulting, and construction firm based in Overland Park, Kansas, that focuses on the energy, water, and telecommunications industries—asked utility, municipal, corporate, and community stakeholders in the water supply and water treatment markets to comment on the most challenging issues they face with respect to the sustainability of their infrastructure. In the online survey—conducted March 15 through April 1—358 respondents ranked the issues they face, and more than half of respondents cited the maintenance of their assets as their greatest concern. In order, this was followed by customer rates, financial solvency, ability to maintain service with limited resources, and water conservation/demand management. The results were detailed in the recently released report 2016 Strategic Directions: U.S. Water Report.

The results were not entirely unexpected, according to Cindy Wallis-Lage, the president of Black & Veatch's global water business. "This was not a surprise because of the lack of investment in infrastructure," she says. "Water is a hidden industry and is resilient. People do not have to think of it when they don't see it or feel the pain of not having a safe water supply."

The recent Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the drought in the western region of the United States—difficult as these events have been—have served to bring the issue of the safety and reliability of the U.S. water supply to the public's attention, the report's authors note. That attention has provoked a national conversation, and the questions raised lead naturally to the cost of ensuring a safe, resilient water supply. 

The first order of business for ensuring the water industry's health is repairing the existing infrastructure, according to the report. The water industry, unfortunately, has deferred asset maintenance for decades, and a high percentage of its structures are approaching the end of their service life. Now the bill is due and by many estimates it figures to be a big one: the American Water Works Association's latest report on the subject, " Buried No Longer" estimates that restoring the nation's existing water systems "as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years." (On the basis of this data as well as others, ASCE's 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the most recent of the society's assessments of the nation's infrastructure, gave drinking water infrastructure a grade of D.)

The issue of costs and financing is even broader than the immediate concerns about maintaining and replacing aging infrastructure, however. The same issues cloud plans for financing new infrastructure construction as well as innovations that could lead to greater efficiencies in the industry. 

Such financial questions would exist even without the pressure that climate change may exert on water utilities, fueled by an expanding population, growing water demands for agricultural and commercial needs, and aging infrastructure, Wallis-Lage notes. However, the report stresses the increasing frequency of such extreme weather events as strong storms and floods and underscores the need for water system resilience in the face of such threats. "Creating resilient systems that can withstand the stresses and strains of extreme events requires long-term infrastructure, resource, and financial planning," Wallis-Lage says.

The report's authors suggest that the water industry would be wise to apply the lessons learned by the electric and natural gas industries to address its cost and infrastructure challenges. Some of these successful solutions include proactive collaboration with municipalities and customers to develop longer-term plans, being open to alternative financing structures, and embracing innovation.

Such alternative financing options as public-private partnerships (PPPs) may be a more realistic approach to financing the necessary maintenance work than depending on consumer rate hikes, the report argues. As such conventional financing methods as municipal bonds, grants, and state support for water infrastructure improvements are drying up, interest in PPPs is growing, the authors state. For water project, these include everything from design/build or design/build/finance to design/build/operate/maintain contracts. Cincinnati, Omaha, Washington, D.C., Midland County, Texas, and several regions of California have all recently embraced innovation in water system financing, planning, and technology, Wallis-Lage says. Omaha in particular has successfully combined gray infrastructure—tanks, pumps, and treatment tanks—with green infrastructure to capture stormwater for reuse instead of allowing it to flow into underground sewer and storm pipes, she notes. 

Technological innovation will play a leading role in "futureproofing" the nation's water systems as well, the report notes. These may include new methods for water reuse, purification, and desalination, the report states. In some southwestern states as well as Texas and Florida nonpotable water reuse is already widely used and accepted; these states are now working on developing potable water reuse technologies. In fact, water reuse for commercial and industrial applications is gaining traction nationwide as a good stewardship practice. 

Fifty percent of the respondents in the Black & Veatch survey report that they either have or plan to develop a master plan for water reuse, which shows how broadly this idea is being considered across the country, even in nonarid markets. But a full 60 percent of respondents listed the financial burdens of such projects as the holdup.  

Currently, modern Asian cities with growing populations are leading the world in adopting new technology for alternative water supplies. In Singapore, for example, NEWater, an alternative water source produced by further purifying treated used water with advanced membrane technologies, meets up to 30 percent of Singapore's water needs. (ASCE members can read "Singapore Plans Two More Reuse Plants, Increasing Its Reliance on Reclaimed Water" in Civil Engineering magazine's August 2008 issue, page 33.) Singapore currently is evaluating an integrated underground drainage and water reservoir system that would integrate stormwater conveyance tunnels, underground reservoir caverns, and a pumped storage system that also includes hydropower. This is the type of innovation that the industry will need to face the future, according to Wallis-Lage.

"Technology will be a huge part of asset replacement as well as new infrastructure worldwide," Wallis-Lage says. "New technology could be a retrofit to existing systems as they are repaired and improved as well as incorporated into new construction." In particular, the report suggests that updating old resources with those capable of integrating with new, so-called smart technologies that can monitor and manage water usage should be strongly considered.



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