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Declining U.S. Water and Sewer Systems

There is growing discontent across America about the cost associated with upgrading sewer and water systems. As reported in this Blog previously, deferred maintenance is beginning to reap negative rewards that are overwhelming already stressed cities and counties. Especially during this past winter, when freezing temperatures in the Northeast caused a rash of water main ruptures, the problem is now beginning to raise the ire of citizens. Elected and appointed officials are also reeling from the effects of failing systems inherited from other administrations that failed to invest in maintenance and replacement. Now, with costs rising and revenue falling, there are insufficient tax dollars to address serious issues.

According to EPA data, a major water main ruptures somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes and this rate seems to be rising as more old systems fail. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority data indicates that in the Washington D.C. area alone water pipes average 76 years old and the system averages a pipe break every day. All it takes is a quick freeze or a week of heavy rains and the city’s system can be overwhelmed. When this occurs, untreated sewage can flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, causing a variety of health and environmental challenges.

Each year there are many state and federal studies indicating that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly. ‘May be’ is too soft. The fact is, there are many systems across the nation in dire need of repair, upgrading or total replacement. Over time, the cost will approach a half trillion dollars, just to get systems up to standard so failures can be avoided.

The reality is that Americans pay very little for sewer and water services and resist the slightest tax or fee increase. As with other aspects of American life, when asked if they would rather have safe, secure and ample water or low taxes, citizens answer, “Yes!”

Especially in Eastern cities many water systems were built in the late 1800s and thousands of systems are 80 to 100 years old. Problems are buried in the ground, out of sight of elected officials and typically ignored by citizens until a major break occurs. Each rupture contaminates water supplies, damages streets, and generates a variety of unfunded expenses that would have been avoided through regular maintenance and system upgrades.

Last year, federal lawmakers allocated more than $10 billion for water infrastructure programs, one of the most significant financial commitments in recent history. Unfortunately, a 2009 E.P.A. study estimated that $335 billion would be needed just to maintain only the nation’s tap water systems in coming decades (sewer systems will take at least that much). In New York, officials estimate that $36 billion is needed in the next 20 years just to upgrade municipal wastewater systems. Clearly, the total amount of funding nationally is not nearly enough to cover the cost of needed repairs and to upgrade systems to accommodate demand.

Charles Duhigg of the New York Times has reported that George Hawkins, director of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority ‘has suggested raising water rates for the average resident by almost 17 percent, to about $60 a month per household. Over the coming six years, that rate would rise above $100. To bring those lapses into the light, Mr. Hawkins has become a cheerleader for rate increases. He has begun a media assault highlighting the city’s water woes. He has created a blog and a Facebook page that explain why pipes break. He regularly appears on newscasts and radio shows, and has filled a personal Web site with video clips of his appearances. ‘

 “This is the fight of our lifetimes,” he added. “Water is tied into everything we should care about. Someday, people are going to talk about our sewers with a real sense of pride.” Hawkins also notes that most people think nothing of spending $100 per month for cable TV or cell phones but don’t want to pay for community water systems that are immeasurably more critical.

Even with new fee increases it would take Washington D.C. 100 years to replace all of its old pipes – then the cycle repeats itself. Hawkins has tried to explain to citizens that with the previous budget it would take three centuries to replace the system. He has not found great support, regardless of data indicating the wisdom of a sound replacement and funding strategy. New York Times writer Duhigg has noted that Philadelphia is ready to start collecting $1.6 billion for new approaches that will prevent rain water from overwhelming the sewer system. Communities around Cleveland threatened to sue when the regional utility proposed charging homeowners for water pollution running off their property. And, in central Florida, a $1.8 billion proposal to build a network of drinking water pipes has drawn organized protests.

The real challenge pertains to how to triage community needs while convincing citizens that some aspects of each community are essential and cannot be neglected. To do so costs more money in the long run, adding to deep and growing deficits. Having provided the keynotes for the national EPA conference on water system sustainability and the National Association of Water Companies annual conference, plus several similar programs, I can attest to the growing frustration. Water is the lifeblood of every community and cannot be neglected. But how will each community organize its funding priorities when so many services are needed?  There is no easy fix and both leadership and wise strategic planning is needed NOW.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

One Response

  1. Perhaps new technology to transport both sewer and drinking water. Nano technology might provide conduits that would be less prone to failure. Flexible liners inside the conduits could prevent loss of the water in the event of breakage.

    Might flexible liners be pulled through existing conduits, cutting the cost of immediate replacement. HDPE is strong, flexible and can be pulled through an existing conduit, rupturing the old conduit to allow the replacement to be pulled through. I had a plumbing contractor pull ~ 200 ft. of HDPE for my damaged underground sewer lateral. If HDPE is not suitable for drinking water, make it suitable.

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