Lack of funding draining for America's water systems: ASCE

Bridges crumble. Roadways in gridlock. Wastewater treatment plants discharge untreated sewage into the nation's water supply. In short, the country's infrastructure is in serious trouble, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers recently released 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure. Jeanette Brown, executive director of Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority and vice president of ASCE Environmental and Water Resources Institute, highlights report's key points...

Mar 12th, 2005

By Jeanette A. Brown, P.E, DEE, F.ASCE

The report of the initial release of this report can be found at our website at: "ASCE Report Card continues scathing attack on ignored infrastructure".

RESTON, VA, March 15, 2005 -- Bridges are crumbling. Roadways are gridlocked. Wastewater treatment plants often discharge untreated sewage into the nation's water supply. In short, the country's infrastructure is in serious trouble, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, released on March 9.

The Report Card graded 15 infrastructure categories at a discouraging D overall, and estimated the need for a $1.6 trillion investment to bring conditions to good levels. Furthermore, the grades in many areas have slipped since ASCE's last Report Card in 2001. Four years ago, drinking water and wastewater systems both received a D grade. This year, both earned a D- and a warning: current levels of federal funding simply will not be sufficient to maintain aging systems.

The past three decades have seen great strides in improved water quality. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the U.S. government has directly invested more than $72 billion in the construction of publicly owned sewage treatment works (POTWs) and their related facilities. Now, however, many of these facilities have reached the end of their useful lives -- with no replacements in sight. Communities are not only faced with the capital costs associated with upgrades to these systems, but the ever increasing cost of operations and maintenance.

Many communities take their water supply from the same rivers and bodies of water that receive wastewater treatment plant effluent. As wastewater treatment plants age and effluent quality deteriorates, however, more is required by the water treatment plants to make the water safe for potable use. Still, water treatment plants are aging also and may not be able to treat water to a safe level.

Yet in FY05, Congress cut wastewater funding under the Clean Water Act State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) for the first time in eight years. The Bush administration has proposed further cuts for FY06. The proposed $730 million, a reduction of 33% from the FY05-enacted level, is woefully inadequate to serve the nation's wastewater needs.

Nor are the nation's 54,000 drinking water systems adequately budgeted. The federal funding level has remained relatively flat since FY97, with between $700 million and $850 million appropriated each year for the SRF. This leaves an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion needed to repair and replace failing systems.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that, in order to protect public health, approximately $151 billion would be needed over 20 years to repair, replace and upgrade the nation's drinking-water systems. In 2002, the EPA estimated that over the next two decades, the United States must spend nearly $390 billion to replace existing wastewater infrastructure systems and build new ones.

The stakes are high. Water flows across state and local boundaries; problems in one jurisdiction can easily impact neighboring areas. A recent report from the staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee stated bluntly; "Without increased investment in wastewater infrastructure, in less than a generation, the U.S. could lose much of the gains it made thus far in improving water quality, and wind up with dirtier water than existed prior to the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act."

Reston, Va.-based ASCE supports enactment of a federal water infrastructure trust fund act that would provide a reliable source of federal assistance for the construction and repair of POTWs and water treatment plants to reduce the enormous funding gap. In the interim, annual appropriations of $1.5 billion from the federal general fund for the SRF program would help meet the most pressing needs.

ASCE also supports the establishment of a federal capital budget to create a mechanism to reduce the constant conflict between short-term and long-term needs. The current federal budget process does not differentiate between expenditures for current consumption and long-term investment, causing major inefficiencies in the planning, design and construction process for long-term investments. A capital budget system would help to increase public awareness of the problems and needs facing this country's physical infrastructure, and help Congress to focus on programs devoted to long-term growth and productivity.

Finally, research into water reuse and purification technology and wastewater treatment technology is critical to help reduce capital expenditures, as well as operation and maintenance costs.

Technology exists, and is currently used, to recycle water in many areas where the water supply is in jeopardy. This recycled water is really wastewater treatment plant effluent that is used for non-potable purposes. But, in order to have a successful and accepted system of water reuse, the wastewater treatment process must meet the technological level to sustain effluent quality. Most U.S. communities can benefit from water recycling systems that will reduce the strain on potable water supplies, but upgrading the treatment facilities is expensive, and a non-potable water supply will need its own distribution system.

Unfortunately, water concerns, while pressing, are only a fraction of the infrastructure problems facing the United States. The ASCE Report Card evaluated 13 other infrastructure categories -- aviation, bridges, dams, energy, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, security, solid waste and transit -- grading none above a C+. In fact, many of the categories have seen a significant decline since the last Report Card was issued in 2001.

In many cases, the same lack of funding that is threatening drinking water and wastewater systems is also wreaking havoc in other areas. In FY05, federal funding for Superfund cleanup of the nation's worst toxic waste sites reached its lowest level since 1986. The National Park Service estimates a maintenance backlog of $6.1 billion for its facilities, leaving many public parks, beaches and recreational harbors in disrepair. And while gridlock and road conditions in many areas are reaching crisis level, long-term federal transportation programs remain unauthorized since expiring on Sept. 30, 2003.

Federal and state budget crises have combined with population growth, urban sprawl, and the redirection of maintenance and growth funding toward security concerns, to create a dangerous downward trend. Meanwhile, the nation's infrastructure -- which many take for granted -- continues to crumble, and the estimated cost of fixing the problem continues to rise. High-profile infrastructure failures, such as the 2003 blackout that left tens of millions without power in the Northeast and Midwest, focus attention on the problem for a short time, but public awareness soon fades. To avoid the risk of additional catastrophic failures, infrastructure concerns must take center stage and funding levels must increase.

About the Author: Jeanette A. Brown is the executive director of Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority. She is also an adjunct professor of environmental engineering at Manhattan College. Brown has 30 years experience in wastewater treatment. She is considered an authority on operations of biological nitrogen removal processes and sludge management. She is currently vice-president of the ASCE Environmental and Water Resources Institute. For more details of the report, including state infrastructure statistics, visit www.asce.org/reportcard.

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