Engineers Look to the Future: State of the Construction & Rehabilitation Market

The pace of construction and rehabilitation of drinking water and wastewater systems in the United States will continue to accelerate in the next few years...

By James Laughlin, Editor, WaterWorld

The pace of construction and rehabilitation of drinking water and wastewater systems in the United States will continue to accelerate in the next few years, driven by a huge need to replace aging infrastructure and to meet the demands of new regulations, population growth and customers' higher expectations, according to spokesmen from some of the top consulting/engineering firms in the country.

WaterWorld interviewed a select group of consulting firm executives to determine the engineering community's views of the construction/rehab market in the Municipal drinking water and wastewater industry. Topics covered included what was driving construction/rehab, challenges faced by municipalities and emerging technologies.

When asked what are the major challenges and issues driving the need for construction/rehab projects in the water market, the engineers all pointed to the problem of aging infrastructure.

"There will be a major increase in the need for water and wastewater infrastructure rehabilitation and replacement projects over the next decade," said Ed Tenny, national director of planning and management services for HDR's water business group.

"In many utilities, a large portion of the water distribution and wastewater collection systems were put in place to match post-WW II population growth/shifts," Tenny said. "In general, due to the materials and installation techniques used, the life expectancy of this distributed infrastructure is approximately 50 years. As a result, much of the existing infrastructure installed prior to 1960 will be at or beyond the end of its useful life and is due for rehabilitation or replacement by the end of this decade."

"For wastewater projects, the facilities that were built under the Clean Water Grants are now 20 to 30 years old and are in serious need of rehabilitation or replacement," said David Kennedy, President/CEO of Kennedy/Jenks Consultants.

The challenge of aging infrastructure comes at the same time that customers and regulators seem to have growing expectations, creating pressure for improved performance and results, said Doug Reed, P.E., Senior Vice President, Woodard & Curran.

"In addition, a steady increase in regulations requires constant study and skills-upgrading to keep pace. It seems that the expectations of process management for operators are higher than ever. You are expected to do more with available resources," Reed said.

Of course, aging infrastructure is not the only driver of construction and rehabilitation, said Black & Veatch Water Americas Division President Dan McCarthy.

"Growth, land-use changes, new regulations, security, and the need to do more with less (less money, less space, etc.) are major drivers for both new construction and rehabilitation in all water-related arenas. Reduction and/or elimination of CSOs and SSOs in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest and implementation of measures to prevent the long-term over-extraction of groundwater supplies are also driving projects within our industry," McCarthy said.

While most people in the industry agree the need is there, they also agree that the money to fund projects isn't readily available. Funding and political will are the major challenges "standing in the way" of construction/rehab projects, the engineers said.

"Money is a huge issue. It takes a lot of political fortitude to stand up and say 'I have to raise your rates to provide the same service I've been providing just so we can replace old infrastructure,'" said Lou Tortora, vice president of business development at Earth Tech.

The key for utility managers is to become effective communicators, Reed said.

"Politicians, community managers, and finance directors, must be brought on board with the benefits of infrastructure improvements. Technical issues must be explained in ways that are comprehensible to people who are intelligent and educated, but who are not engineers or utility managers. Only if they understand the community-benefit side of technical issues can they prioritize the huge backlog of improvement initiatives," Reed said.

Beyond the money lies other major hurdles that many utilities face, Tenny said. Many utilities have not implemented the business practices and information systems needed to meet the challenges of the upcoming decades, they lack the organizational structure to support large-scale rehab and replacement programs, and they haven't developed financial plans and funding mechanisms to support such programs.

"Since aging and failing infrastructure is a relatively recent phenomenon for the majority of water and wastewater utilities in the United States, many utilities do not have good asset databases, do not have mature inspection and condition assessment programs, and do not have the maintenance data required to plan, prioritize and implement large-scale rehabilitation and replacement programs," Tenny said. And, "unfortunately, many utilities do not have an adequate funding mechanism in place for the large-scale rehabilitation and replacement of aging infrastructure."

Construction is also being driven by new and existing regulations imposed on the water industry.

"There is tremendous public and regulatory pressure to eliminate and/or treat combined and sanitary sewer overflows," Tortora said.

"We are watching the TMDLs, non-point source controls, and the California Toxics rule for the wastewater market, and the promulgation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (Disinfectants/ Disinfection By-Products Rule, Arsenic limits, etc.) on the drinking water side," Kennedy said.

"For wastewater treatment agencies, we see some states more or less prohibiting the disposal of biosolids that can not meet the Class A biosolids standard," Tenny said.

While not directly driving construction, both the GASB 34 and the formerly proposed "CMOM" regulation will require agencies to begin planning for the rehabilitation and replacement of aging infrastructure. Also, the initiatives will require water and wastewater utilities to demonstrate that they have an adequate funding plan for rehabilitation and replacement of failing assets, Tenny warned.

"These complex regulatory issues will drive both significant capital investment and increased operating costs in the future," he said.

The challenges faced by municipalities in handling large-scale projects have forced many to consider alternative forms of delivery, the engineers agreed.

"We are seeing increased alternative project delivery activity, including design-build, design-build-operate, and construction management-at-risk as state and local laws change to enable procurement of municipal water/wastewater infrastructure projects by nontraditional means," McCarthy said. "We're also providing more program management, including comprehensive CSO and wastewater program management in Toledo and management of a major water supply program in San Antonio."

While the alternative forms of delivery can reduce project costs, they also have long-term benefits in the form of reduced staffing, shorter construction times and less potential for lawsuits, Tortora said.

"When dealing with design/build for alternative means of delivery, sometimes the costs savings are not that significant. Sometimes there are greater savings in time and money by minimizing the potential for downstream litigation," Tortora said. "Because you reduce the number of interfaces a client might have when implementing a project - the engineer/contractor is one entity - you limit the number of responsible parties and simplify conflict resolution.

As utilities look to replacing or expanding their treatment facilities, more are turning to non-traditional technologies, drawn by the promise of better, faster, cheaper and smaller systems.

"Municipal treatment systems are always evolving, as utilities try to provide better services at either the same or lower costs," Tortora said.

"There is a marked increase in the focus on the value, rather than just the cost, of professional services," Reed said. "More and more, design-build contractors are selected on track record, not just price. This is encouraging, as public procurement is often seen as compromising quality for price. Hopefully, contractors with track records of late delivery and cost overruns will be motivated to change."

Membrane filtration, UV disinfection, membrane bioreactors, and other high quality, low footprint treatment technologies are all becoming widely accepted, Tenny said.

"These new treatment technologies will allow water and wastewater utilities to address ever-increasing water quality standards and regulatory requirements within the footprint of their existing facilities," he said.

"Other technologies that are becoming more and more important include the use of Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) and SCADA systems. These systems are key tools for addressing the asset management requirements of treatment facilities," Tenny said.

Satellite water reclamation facilities (SWRFs) have emerged as an important trend as the space requirements and construction and conveyance costs associated with upgrading existing facilities to produce high-quality effluent can be prohibitive, McCarthy said.

"Although suitable for numerous applications, membrane bioreactors - which integrate submerged membranes with an activated sludge aeration basin - provide a technological foundation ideal for SWRFs due to their small footprint and exceptional effluent quality. Black & Veatch has been involved in the evaluation and design of this technology for numerous projects," he said.

For many utilities, the requirements for treated water and for effluent is considerably higher than before, but at the same time they are treating water that is less pure than in year's past, Kennedy said.

"The traditional treatment techniques are still more appropriate for some conditions, but the emerging technologies give us more techniques to choose from. The idea is to tailor the treatment to the specific condition," he said.

While treatment systems are evolving, so are the construction and repair techniques used in distribution and collection system rehabilitation. Lining systems, microtunneling, pipe-bursting and other trenchless technologies are gaining favor as utilities look for ways to repair pipe networks without tearing up streets and yards.

"We also see a continuing trend toward large-scale (over 8 foot in diameter) conventional tunneling for major new pipelines to replace or supplement aging systems," McCarthy said. "Many utilities view this as a cost-effective and neighborhood-friendly way to make urgently needed improvements. Deep underground easements are in order of magnitude easier to obtain than shallow surface easements.

Utilities are using new management/ IT tools for integrating data to more effectively manage distribution and collection system rehabilitation, Tenny said.

"The most significant technological advancement we have seen in this area is the use of Geographic Information Systems to manage collection system and distribution system asset information and maintenance data. The value of a GIS system goes far beyond system mapping. The real value of GIS is as a tool to analyze system failures, to focus inspection and condition assessment resources, and to optimize pipeline rehabilitation and replacement programs," Tenny said.

There have also been significant advances in condition and assessment technologies for pipe systems, allowing utilities to gain a better understanding of the pipe networks and identify problem areas.

"One example is the use of digital video linked to GIS systems where the video data can be stored on a server instead of VHS tapes. Another example would be the emerging application of ultrasonic and other "smart" instruments that have been utilized effectively in the petrochemical and natural gas industries for many years," Tenny said.

Looking ahead, the drinking water and wastewater industries face a variety of challenges when it comes to maintaining the health and vitality of this industry.

"One continuing challenge is the recruitment of quality water and wastewater treatment operators. There is a serious shortage," Reed said. "Also, spending on rehabilitation will increase. This complicates budgeting, and so we will turn to asset management tools to make better use of data to support prioritization and to establish performance measures."

"In the short term, one of the key challenges is educating policy makers and rate payers about the phenomenon of aging infrastructure in the United States and the need to re-invest in our water and wastewater systems," Tenny said. "This will not be an easy task and the water and wastewater industry as a whole needs to articulate this challenge much better than we have in the past. If we can't create understanding and support for funding infrastructure rehabilitation, the level of service to our customers will deteriorate over the next decade."

In the years to come, it will be very important that utility mangers embrace sound management and financial practices, McCarthy said.

"Today's utility managers must be on par with, or even better than, senior executives from the private sector. More than ever before, we see utility managers continually sharpening the saw by attending technical and managerial conferences, participating in research programs, reviewing succession planning, and turning a strategic eye towards long-term capital and operating plans. This is strengthening the industry as never before," he said.

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