When you hear the word tackle, what image comes to mind? Perhaps you picture football (’tis the season, after all). But when we think about tackling our aging water and wastewater systems, slamming into them at the force of a linebacker might not be all that productive.
Indeed, tackling aging infrastructure can be much more effective when we have a well-laid-out purpose and plan — with the financial support to get it done.
In his recent presentation at the Smart Water Summit in San Antonio, Texas, Master Meter’s Greg Land suggested an approach not like football but fishing. “Granted, I haven’t really been fishing in about 30 years,” he admitted, “but I still remember some of the lessons my father and uncle taught me about using the right bait for the fish we were after. After all, to tackle something really means we are equipping ourselves for dealing with a particular problem or task.”
The need to equip ourselves for the water infrastructure challenges that lie ahead has never been more urgent. In its most recent Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our nation’s water infrastructure a C- (which, for the record, is a slight improvement over recent years). Wastewater infrastructure received a D+.
There are a lot of factors contributing to those less-than-stellar marks. For one thing, our pipes are old. Like, really old. Research suggests the average age of U.S. water pipe is about 45. Believe it or not, that’s actually relatively young in pipe years; there are over 500 utilities across the country with cast iron pipes that are over 100 years old (not to mention the occasional wooden pipe that gets unearthed much to the astonishment of unsuspecting construction crews).
It’s not only the pipe network that needs upgrading; dams, storage tanks and towers, pumps, and other pieces of critical water treatment and distribution equipment are reaching, if not exceeding, their lifecycle expectations.
There is no denying it, Greg noted in his presentation. “Our infrastructure is well into its golden years for many utilities. It needs our attention.”
That’s not to say there is NO replacement happening; there is. But it’s a slow process, as anyone in the water industry can attest. Unfortunately, the sluggish pace at which pipes and components are being upgraded means that it’s unlikely an entire system would be addressed before at least some of its equipment reaches the end of its useful lifecycle.
So, what’s the consequence of aging infrastructure? Leaks and breaks are at the top of the list. Given that there is a water main break every two minutes, it’s easy to see why. (Quick math: roughly 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost every day — that’s over 2.1 trillion gallons per year).
Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 14% – 18% of total daily treated potable water is lost through leaks. Not only is that a drain on our already stressed water supply network, it’s a staggering waste of money. It’s expensive to collect, treat and distribute safe, clean drinking water! Can you think of another industry that would survive losing 18% of its product?
Today’s water and wastewater utilities are under enormous pressure to operate and maintain safe, efficient systems — a task made inherently more difficult when seasoned, experienced staff is ready to retire. In fact, between 2016 and 2026, an estimated 10.6% of water sector workers will retire or transfer each year, with some utilities expecting as much as half of their staff to retire in the next five to 10 years.
The unfortunate outcome is that, for many utilities, maintenance activities are reactive. Keeping up with pipes, pumps, motors, filtration systems, and more can be like a frantic and watery game of Whack-A-Mole.
The Good News
The challenges are great, yes. But there are strategies and tools in the tackle box that are helping water utilities identify, address, prioritize and fund much-needed infrastructure projects.
Developing an asset management program is one of the most important initiatives a utility can undertake. Complementing that, smart water technology is available to evaluate asset condition and risk, read meters, remotely monitor flow, pressure and temperature, detect sewer overflows — and, using machine learning and artificial intelligence, even predict where failures might occur, helping utilities stay one step ahead of the game.
Funding sources, while historically far outpaced by need, are available and growing. Some of the most common include:
- EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Water State Revolving Fund: Provides low-interest loans to fund communities of all sizes for water or wastewater systems to protect public health and ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.
- EPA Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act (WIFIA) program: Offers the sponsors of large projects (generally over $20 million) a new financing tool to leverage limited federal resources, stimulate additional investment in our nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, and encourage greater private sector participation.
- Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program: Provides funding for water and wastewater infrastructure projects in communities with populations of less than 10,000.
- S. Department of Interior Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Investing $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water across the country and eliminate lead service pipes in disadvantaged communities that need it most.
- FEMA Public Assistance Grant: Provides funding to assist communities responding to and recovering from major disasters or emergencies declared by the President under the Stafford Act
“We all recognize the road we have ahead of us is a long one and new challenges that have reared their ugly heads — such as labor and component shortages — are not making it any easier,” Greg noted in his talk. “But despite that, the effort we put in today and in the coming years is worth it. I think that now is an exciting time to be part of the rapid changes in our industry that help us get better at the business of water management and be part of a solution that can help improve public access to clean and safe drinking water!”
Greg Land is a product manager at Master Meter with over 25 years of experience in various aspects of the water meter industry. He will be sharing his insights as part of a distinguished panel focusing on “Smart Water: Optimizing Operations and Tackling Aging Infrastructure” at the upcoming World Water-Tech North America Summit, Sept. 28–29, 2022, in Los Angeles.