Our Aging Infrastructure
Part 1: The Big Picture on Infrastructure Renewal

Several reports recently issued by industry-leading organizations have documented the need to rehabilitate aging infrastructure throughout the country.
Dodging potholes is part of the daily commute for many Metro Detroiters. While Michigan winters are tough on the roads, poor conditions can also be attributed to deferred maintenance that accelerates deterioration. The end result is higher car maintenance and road reconstruction costs. Water mains and sewers face a similar fate as budgets tighten and the useful life of our underground pipes diminishes – the only difference is we cannot see the deterioration that is occurring.

The network of water mains and sewers buried throughout the Metropolitan Detroit area contains pipes of varying age and material that must remain in service each day. Replacing the older, deteriorating pipes is balanced with annual operation and maintenance costs in setting acceptable yearly rates. This balancing act is complicated by decreased water consumption and the need to replace large segments of pipe installed during population and system growth periods. Communities throughout the country are finding themselves in this situation. To learn more about the challenges communities face with water and sewer infrastructure renewal, we interviewed industry leaders to gain a national perspective.
All Types of Infrastructure Need Repairs
Water mains, sewers and roads aren’t the only infrastructure in need of repair – dams, levees, schools, airports and hazardous waste facilities were also given poor grades by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as part of their Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Every four years ASCE conducts a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s major infrastructure categories and assigns grades based on eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. The 2013 Report Card, published in March, assigned the nation a D+ cumulative GPA, slightly above what it received in 2009. The Drinking Water and Wastewater categories received a D, also a slight increase from the previous grade of D-.
“We increased the Water grade because we are seeing more utilities raise their rates to pay for needed infrastructure improvements,” explains Robert Victor, PE, Chair of the Advisory Council for ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. “People’s water usage behaviors have also changed, for example with low flush toilets, and we view this as a positive trend. The Wastewater grade improved as well, in part because there have been some positive combined sewer overflow (CSO) control programs throughout the country, including Detroit’s program.”
“Pipe replacement is still a big concern which is why the grades remain low,” adds Victor. “Significant local investment is needed in distribution and collection systems and it will have to be reflected in higher rates throughout the country. This is going to be challenging to sell.”
The economic impact of postponing rehabilitation of our nation’s infrastructure is real. As a precursor to the report card, ASCE analyzed the economic impact of deferring needed water, wastewater, transportation and electricity improvements in the Failure to Act Economic Series of reports. The analyses showed that the nation’s economy will continue to be negatively impacted if needed investment is deferred. The impact will be even worse if multiple infrastructure systems, such as roads, electricity and water, weaken at once.
Affordability and Water Quality Benefits Need to go Hand in Hand
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Clean Water Act’s requirements are stringent to protect our nation’s waterways including our drinking water sources. This is reflected in wastewater collection and treatment costs that are typically twice as much as drinking water treatment and distribution costs. More wastewater pollutants need to be removed during the treatment process, sewers tend to be deeper and more expensive to construct, and hydraulics within the collections system can be very complex.
Federal grants in the 1970s provided the initial investment to upgrade our wastewater treatment facilities and meet the original Clean Water Act compliance requirements. Today, there continues to be treatment facility upgrade and rehabilitation needs as well as additional compliance requirements for storm water and wet weather. Federal grants are no longer available and local funding through rates is the primary funding mechanism used by utilities creating a large gap between what is currently being paid and what needs to be spent on needed improvements. While every region has their own set of issues to deal with, wet weather treatment and control programs in the Midwest and Northeast are particularly burdensome.
“Continuing to make progress in clean water without bankrupting our cities is a significant challenge,” expounds Ken Kirk, Executive Director, National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). “We need to invest our money wisely. The pendulum is swinging to cut funding at a time when we need it the most. We need a framework that allows communities to make the best use of limited dollars through projects that impact water quality.”
“The USEPA has pushed out an integrated permitting program that acknowledges the need for more flexibility in prioritizing projects,” adds Kirk. “Community leaders also understand the need for sustainability. It will take visionary thinkers to recognize the landscape has changed and there is a need to change the way services are provided. Programs will take longer to implement and rates will continue to go up.”.
Underground water and sewer pipes aren’t as visible to the public as roads and other infrastructure, but rehabilitation of these assets is just as critical to public health and safety.
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