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The Price of Aging Drinking Water Infrastructure

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If you're writing on drinking water infrastructure, you would benefit from the sources included in this post. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its quadrennial "Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment," reporting a total 20-year capital improvement need (2011 through 2030) of $384.2 billion for infrastructure. This report, comparable to the 2007 EPA assessment, states that U.S. water systems have “entered a ‘rehabilitation and replacement era’ in which much of water utilities’ existing infrastructure has reached or is approaching the end of its useful life.” From Topeka to Chicago and New York, aging and corroded water pipes result in main breaks that take a toll.

Slicing the project type pie

Replacing or refurbishing aging or deteriorating transmission and distribution mains takes the greatest slice of the infrastructure pie graph, needing $247.5 billion over the next 20 years (64.4 percent of the total need). This category of need increased the most since the 2007 EPA assessment, where these projects made up about 60 percent of the total need. Here’s the chart from the EPA report:

 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pie graph showing drinking water infrastructure needs by project type

Other Need Estimates

Other sources provide larger estimates of the capital improvement need, with the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) estimating water system needs at $570.4 billion (adjusted to 2011 dollars) over 20 years ($28.5 billion annually), as detailed in their “Clean and Safe Water for the 21st Century - A Renewed National Commitment to Water and Wastewater Infrastructure.”

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates at least $1 trillion will be required over a 25-year period through 2035 in order to restore existing water system pipe that has reached the end of its useful life and to expand pipe networks to meet growing populations. AWWA’s report (“Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge”) calls for significantly more financial resources than other assessments in part because it looks at a different set of assumptions about pipe replacement and investment and covers a longer period of time.

The Takeaway

From what I see in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 EPA reports, infrastructure needs have increased by about $1 billion per year since 2003. Analyses consistently point out that investing in infrastructure today has a significant return on investment down the road. And likewise, not investing today means we pay for it later, at a punishing price. Last, let’s not forget that infrastructure is inextricably linked with  local, state, and national economies: for example, the recent EPA report cites a U.S. Conference of Mayors study that “estimates that adding 1 job in water and sewer creates 3.68 jobs in the national economy to support that job.” From another angle, doing nothing to fix the system could threaten long-term economic growth.