The time to prioritize aging infrastructure is now

March 8, 2024
Aging infrastructure and how to address it

Every two minutes or thereabout, a pipe breaks in the U.S. amounting to around 2.1 trillion gallons of water lost in the nation every year. Since most of the nation’s infrastructure was built between the 1890s and 1940s, it is not that surprising. Currently, our aging water Infrastructure is breaking faster than it can be replaced, which is why it has remained as the top water challenge for several years according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA) annual State of the Industry report.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated an $81 billion per year investment gap in water infrastructure in 2019, which will grow to $136 billion by 2029 if left unaddressed. Prioritizing budgets for addressing aging infrastructure is critical.

 

Recognizing that the hurdles are real

The cost of repairs/upgrades is expected to exceed $430B by 2029[1], yet according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, it is estimated that only $50 billion[2] is allocated to date. That’s a significant discrepancy between reported need versus actual planned investment.

Utilities are also facing changes in population size that can complicate planning and management. If populations decline, utility revenues decline, and deplete maintenance budgets. Adversely if populations increase the demand grows exponentially adding stress to the system. On average, over 90% of utility revenues come from water bills. The 2023 State of the Industry report from the American Water Works Association said that 78% of utilities were expected to increase water rates in 2023 (up from 64% in 2021). Disadvantaged communities are usually hit the hardest.

Given that one-third of the water utility workforce is predicted to retire in the next 10 years, personnel shortages are real. The next generation of utility workers need to be tech savvy given the recent digital transformation of the industry which is also part of the plan to digitize decades of knowledge from the current workforce. High demand for skilled workers and upskilling existing workers can be costly for the average utility.

Funding opportunities are good, but they come with requirements, such as the stipulation for using domestic products Build America, Buy America (BABA), American Iron & Steel (AIS), and Buy America/FHWA DOT. Also given the recent changes in EPA regulations regarding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and the lead service line inventory deadline for October 2024, the government has provided access to more funding opportunities, which in turn comes with meeting certain requirements to access.

All of this can be daunting in the daily life of operating a water utility, but where adversity lies, so does opportunity and so do solutions, and more specifically solution providers.

Funding opportunities are plentiful

While there are many state funding opportunities, there are large federal programs that exist to address the above challenges. They include

  • Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) - $1.2T over 10 years
  • This $55B investment in water infrastructure is the largest in U.S. history.
  • Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA)
  • 94 WIFIA loans are financing $34 billion in water infrastructure upgrades, to create 104,000 jobs.
  • 29 EPA environmental finance centers have been established

These centers provide objective financial advice to help communities make informed decisions on funding drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure projects. They provide access to tools that help utilities make financing decisions that meet their local infrastructure needs.

 

Align with partners to help with the heavy lifting

Manufacturers and service providers of the water industry are aware of these funding opportunities and are there to help. Utilities should let them know that they want to access these funding opportunities as early as possible. Sharing strategic asset management plans and periodical system assessments with manufacturers and service providers can help with risk mitigation and project prioritization, so utilities can fix what needs to be fixed with the best products that meet the funding criteria.

Manufacturers can help with developing strategic asset management plans and help prioritize utilities’ operational maintenance and replacement needs over the lifetime of assets. Additionally, technological advancements can ensure periodic system assessments provide organizations with critical information about assets, avoid unnecessary overtime and emergency costs, and prolong the life of distribution infrastructure. Key measurement areas for aging infrastructure include

Predictive modeling to develop asset management plans based on likelihood of failure, consequences of failure, and business risk buried infrastructure

  • Leak detection to accurately locate leaks and assess their severity
  • Non-invasive, non-disruptive pipe condition assessment to determine the useful remaining life of each part of the distribution system and assist with prioritizing repair or replacement
  • Pressure monitoring to detect pressure anomalies & deviation from system models that could indicate a leak (The right consistent pressure can significantly impact the life of your infrastructure assets.)
  • No-dig lead service line field survey investigations to inform lead replacement programs and increase a utility’s ability to meet EPA’s initial lead line inventory deadline this year and keep up with inventory in years to come
  • Consider technology enhancements while the ground is open

Fixing what needs to be fixed always takes priority, but many technological advancements can be used in the solution to upgrade infrastructure, such as

  • Pressure control and optimization
  • Automated leak detection
  • Automated flushing systems
  • Remote meter connect/disconnect

Automation and digitization allows remote access for control and monitoring of the water distribution system, which reduces truck roles and allows faster response times to deal with issues. These new technologies provide tangible outcomes, such as lowering energy usage, improving water quality, providing consistent optimal water pressure, reducing water loss, and optimizing maintenance programs, repairs, and workforce allocation. Improving operations usually leads to improved customer service a win for both sides.



[1] Multipure.com, Facts About America’s Water Infrastructure,’ August 1, 2022

[2] The Wall Street Journal, “Jackson Water Crisis Forces Cities to Confront Their Own Aging Infrastructure,” September 2, 2022

 

About the Author

Paul Gifford

Paul Gifford is the director of product for Mueller Water Products. He has been with Mueller for 21 years and works closely with municipalities and end users to understand customer challenges and adapt or create products to solve problems.

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