National Water Infrastructure Needs Top EPA Estimate, Official Says

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By Amena H. Saiyid

July 21 — The Environmental Protection Agency has identified water infrastructure investment needs totaling $655 billion nationwide, but that would only cover the next decade at most, the nation’s top water official said July 21.

Joel Beauvais, EPA deputy assistant administrator for water, said EPA-commissioned surveys on the money needed for drinking water ($384 billion) and wastewater ($271 billion) improvements are “a substantial underestimate of the actual investment needed” in the coming decades to keep the country's water infrastructure updated.

But the $655 billion only represents the investment needs that are eligible for funding over the next five to 10 years through federal-state partnerships in the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds, and excludes other sources, Beauvais said, speaking at an Environmental Council of the States meeting in Washington, D.C. The agency's estimate also makes simplistic assumptions about the lifetime of replaced lead distribution lines, he said.

Beauvais said a 2015 Congressional Budget Office study provides the best estimate of about $50 billion in capital investments in water infrastructure needed per year.

Altogether, the estimates show that the country is not investing at the rate it should to upgrade aging infrastructure and protect public health, Beauvais said.

Finding Practical Solutions

Beauvais discussed EPA’s assessment of the nation’s water infrastructure needs during a roundtable on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure at the council's annual 2016 State Environmental Protection meeting. The session was about finding practical solutions to address the crisis posed by aging water infrastructure. The moderator, ECOS vice president and commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency John Stine, asked other panelists how competing interests faced by states and local governments can be “synergized” to address the most pressing priorities.

“The infrastructure is aging and we are seeing the symptoms of it,” Beauvais said, citing the 240,000 water main breaks that occur each year in the country, or about 700 a day, wasting about 1.4 trillion gallons of treated water. On the wastewater end, billions of gallons of overflow of raw sewage enters waterways each year despite the substantial investments made by the federal government to reduce combined sewer overflows.

“There are substantial public health risks associated with it” not to mention the costs involved in loss of treated drinking water, said Beauvais.

On the positive side, Beauvais said the opportunity to rebuild and replace infrastructure is ripe for innovation. “We build systems for tomorrow” that are resilient to climate change, Beauvais said.

According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, 5 percent to 6 percent of infrastructure financing is leveraged through the clean water state revolving fund, while 95 percent is financed by municipal rates charged to consumers of wastewater treatment and collection services.

Taking part in the panel discussion alongside Beauvais was Carol Comer, director of Indiana Department of Environmental Management, who was asked to comment on the local governments that have to balance interests competing for limited dollars. She said “there's always a fight for dollars” as cities and towns have to decide on funding for roads, parks, schools and water infrastructure.

Comer recommended regionalization, or consolidating several small water utility systems that lack resources. Beauvais, however, said regionalization is a concept that the EPA was gingerly tackling as it involves sensitivities around local authorities and independence.

No Longer Rely on Federal Funding

National Association of Clean Water Agencies Executive Director Adam Krantz said the wastewater utility sector can no longer rely on the federal government to meet its infrastructure needs. Instead, water utilities are treating themselves as enterprises and looking at treated wastewater as a product rather than a waste stream. “Wastewater is not wastewater anymore. It is water that can be recycled and used. It has value,” Krantz said.

He pointed to the increasing use of green infrastructure that is not only beautifying neighborhoods through tree planting and installing grassy swales, but also reducing the carbon footprint and capturing stormwater runoff through natural infiltration into the ground. He said utilities like DC Water and others across the country were looking for ways to reduce energy consumption and turn into net-zero energy users, and find ways to generate energy from the biosolids that can be returned to the grid.

Above all, “one cannot ignore the constant stream of nutrients coming from bathrooms across the states. The reality is the world is facing a global phosphorus shortage and we are sitting on a gold mine,” said Krantz, eliciting a round of laughter from the room.

Krantz said there needs to be a change in environmental laws, notably the Clean Water Act, to address the changing conditions that utilities face, such as climate change. He said the existing laws don't clarify how to regulate reuse of wastewater, for instance.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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