A Brief Look into America’s Aging Water Infrastructure
As citizens living in one of the most industrialized nations in the world, it’s probably safe to say most of us take our unlimited access to available clean water for granted. Thanks to modern infrastructure, we never have to worry where our clean water will come from or second guess if it is potable and ready for personal use and consumption.
But, what if the fundamental systems in place today were slowly deteriorating and beginning to fail. What if most of our water and wastewater systems across the country were beginning to age, and not receiving the attention they require to be brought fully up to date.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), that’s exactly the kind of situation most of the nation’s water and wastewater systems currently face.
As the U.S. population has continued to steadily increase, the percentage of people served by the public water system has increased as well. As a result, new water lines have been constructed to connect distant residents to nearby centralized water systems. However, although new pipes are being added to serve demand in new areas, existing component parts of current centralized water systems are not being upgraded, and as a result, are showing signs of disintegration.
In their report “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure,” the ASCE documents the lack of capital spending being invested in our nation’s water infrastructure. Their depiction shows if current trends continue, the gap between how much money is needed to update existing water facilities and how much federal money is actually available, will only continue to widen.
In a recent report, PBS took a look into the wastewater tunnels beneath the City of Detroit, home to some of the most outdated infrastructure pipes in the country. Points of concern for them are leaks that have popped up and are in need of repair. Quick fixes exist to temporarily patch up existing leaks, like lining old pipes with a polymer sleeve that hardens soon after a resin is applied, but old, leaky pipes aren’t an incident isolated only to Detroit. Cities across the nation are facing the same crumbling infrastructure beneath the streets, and it’s a growing engineering concern.
In PBS’ report, Sue McCormick discusses a significant concern among engineers regarding the fact that we’ve “…differed our replacement of public systems, and ultimately we will see potential significant rises in failures.” Many existing wastewater treatment plants are forced to keep old plants running, while trying to adhere to the federal Clean Water Act, and manage $600 million in improvements. It’s a lot to juggle to maintain existing infrastructure and keep polluted water from entering our rivers and lakes.
In 2009 the ASCE issued a U.S. Infrastructure Report Card, divvying out a D-minus to the nation’s water and sewer systems. A D-minus meaning we’re short “$84 billion over the next eight years to bring it to a good condition over what we’re currently spending.”
So without the federal funds necessary to properly update our country’s water infrastructure, what is the best solution to this growing problem?
San Antonio, Texas, a city constantly praised for its approach to water and wastewater systems, thinks they’ve found one answer – preventative conservation.
Though the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) also is tasked with patching up existing systems at the lowest user cost, they are also in the game of preventing the need for so much infrastructure patch-work through means of conservation. For example, their largest wastewater plant is called a recycling center, where they reuse all of the processed residuals that come out of the plant. Individual conservation methods are also strongly encouraged, as well as xeriscaping, or landscaping that doesn’t need irrigation.
Perhaps San Antonio’s conservation methods are the best way to avoid our aging water systems from receiving another D-minus from the ASCE. One thing is clear however, our aging centralized water systems need to be given the attention they deserve to preserve our fundamental way of living.
Sources:PBS Newshour: Crumbling Pipes and Underground Waste: A Glimpse at Our Nation’s Ailing Sewer Systems ASCE: “Failure to Act” Wastewater Infrastructure Report Card