The creation of modern water and wastewater systems was one of the most significant public health achievements of the 20th century. Drinking water treatment and systems brought safe, reliable drinking water to homes and businesses. Clean water systems eliminated deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid and helped extend life expectancy in the U.S. by 30 years. But the systems built nearly 100 years ago were for communities that look completely different today.
After working around the clock for 70, 80 and even 100 years, water and wastewater infrastructure has been the victim of deferred maintenance for decades, putting our infrastructure and resources at risk. About 650 water main breaks occur every day – that’s one every 2 minutes—leading to 7 billion gallons of water and $2.6 billion lost through leaky pipes.
In addition to aging infrastructure, water and wastewater systems face additional stresses that builders of the 20th century never expected. They were designed for cities and towns with much smaller populations than they have today. That growth is straining water systems. And in the face of changing climates, intense rainfall, extreme drought, and rising sea levels make it increasingly difficult to maintain safe and reliable operation.
For utilities across America, every week is Infrastructure Week as cities work to make their communities more resilient by bringing their essential infrastructure systems into the 21st century. Bringing our outdated and dilapidated infrastructure to the 21st century, especially a future that is somewhat uncertain, will not be an easy feat. But it’s also not insurmountable.
First, it will require reinvestment and new financing streams. The American Water Works Association estimates it will cost more than $1 trillion to replace aging water pipes in the ground, and that figure doesn’t account for necessary upgrades to drinking water or wastewater treatment plants. For decades, 98% of water infrastructure projects have been financed by local communities and ratepayers. Utilities can’t afford to address infrastructure alone. We need to find a balance between local investments, affordable rates that reflect the true cost of delivering these essential services, and access to low-cost federal loans and grant programs.
Bringing our water and wastewater infrastructure into the 21st century will mean seizing these once-in-a-generation investments to achieve additional benefits. Maximizing resource recovery in wastewater operations, incorporating workforce development into capital programs, and leveraging green infrastructure for stormwater management and community beautification are just some of the ways utilities are building multiple benefits into project design and delivery.
21st century infrastructure improvements are also about investing in long-term solutions in an integrated way. Drinking water, wastewater and stormwater have traditionally been viewed and managed separately. As utilities look to the future, they are planning capital programs in a way that integrates infrastructure solutions across the water cycle in an interconnected way for resilience and resource sustainability. For example, utilities are investing in water reuse and recycling that requires integration between water and wastewater infrastructure and operations.
Lastly, our water challenges are complex, diverse, and deserve multi-faceted solutions. Local governments can’t solve all these challenges alone. Solutions to our infrastructure crisis will also require cross-sector and intergovernmental partnerships. 21st century cities need 21st century water infrastructure and it will take trillions of dollars to get there. Every sector must play a role. Partnerships both within and beyond the water sector are essential to arriving at innovative infrastructure solutions and meeting our financing and water management needs.
This week, local and national leaders from business, labor, local government, and national associations are demonstrating the importance of partnership by coming together in Washington DC, and across the country, for Infrastructure Week, a week of education, advocacy and media activities to address America’s infrastructure crisis.
The Value of Water Coalition’s local innovators tour celebrates the best and brightest leaders and projects across the nation that are deploying these strategies in order to bring water and wastewater infrastructure into the 21st century.
From May 16 through May 22, Value of Water partners in cities across the country will host events and tours to tell the story about why water infrastructure matters to their people, their economy, and their communities. In Camden, New Jersey, American Water and the City of Camden are spotlighting a public-private partnership that is going to provide workforce training for community members and better water and wastewater service for the city. In Hampton Roads, Virginia, Hampton Roads Sanitation District is breaking ground for a new pump station that will replace a World War II era facility. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is leading up close and personal tours of their treatment plants, sewers, and green infrastructure projects and hosting a seminar series for the public. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Regional Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago will simultaneously open six facilities to the public for behind the scenes tours and they’ll be giving away trees to plant as a greener way to manage stormwater runoff. In Alexandria, Virginia, AlexRenew is hosting tours of their facilities that reclaim and reuse water and manage nutrients in innovative ways and previewing the new LEED Platinum Environmental Center. These events pull back the curtain and invite the public, press, and local leaders to join us in celebrating the successful local innovations.
As cities build 21st century infrastructure by integrating new technologies and embedding innovations, they set an example for the nation that #infrastructurematters for making American cities resilient, competitive, sustainable and viable places to live in the future.