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The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)–in a quest to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public–produces a report card depicting the condition and performance of our country’s infrastructure. Grades are based on the physical condition of our infrastructure, and the budgetary shortfall for bringing it to acceptable levels.

Fifteen infrastructure categories were reviewed: Aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater.

The 2009 Infrastructure Report Card is out–and we’re not looking good. Our overall grade for the 15 infrastructure categories scored is a “D.” What factors influence this dismal report card in every category? 

Chronic underfunding and delayed maintenance. I’m sorry to say that drinking water and wastewater both had the lowest grade of “D-,” as did inland waterways, levees and roads. Solid waste had the highest grade of “C+.”

The stimulus money will provide some help, but doesn’t come close to solving the problems, as shown by the chart in ASCE’s Executive Summary. For instance, at a recent meeting with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, utility managers and consultants were told that while there was approximately $80 million of federal stimulus funds available, there were already over $1 billion in funding requests for drinking water projects.

Drinking water alone has a nationwide annual shortfall of $11 billion needed to replace aging treatment components, distribution systems and other water infrastructure.

This report is well done, right-on, and downright scary. We can only hide our heads in the sand so long before the infrastructure in our great country crumbles around–above–and underneath us.

Looking at the news story on television two days before Christmas, helicoptor rescues of people standing on their cars, emergency reponders pulling people to safety, I thought there was a terrible flood from heavy rain or snow-melt.

Instead, the news reporter stated the torrential rapids were due to a broken 66-inch diameter water main, just outside Washington, D.C.

Frigid water trapped 9 people in their vehicles, as flows of up to 150,000 gallons per minute turned River Road into the real thing, pulling up 6-foot asphalt chunks and slamming them into cars. Schools closed and two hospitals were affected by water outages.

Miraculously, no serious injuries occurred. Crews had the water main repaired by New Year’s Day–after replacing five 16-foot sections of pipe weighing 14 tons each.

As bad as I feel for the residents and the work crews affected, there’s something good about this potential disaster.

It brings to light our aging infrastructure–a drum I’ve been beating for years. And right at the time–when we’re hearing about a massive stimulus plan on infrastructure repairs.

I’ve been concerned about the stimulus plan, because most of what gets printed in the papers refers to roads and bridges. The underground utilities seemed forgotten–out of sight, out of mind. When in fact, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of aging and deteriorated water, sewer and storm pipe in the ground.

This water break, though sensational, was not an isolated event. Officials have warned for years that the system needed repairs. Last year they reported a total of 2,129 water breaks.

Hopefully, the publicity of this water main break will remind our public officials that if we don’t fund maintenance of our underground utilities, we’ll pay later.

The American Water Works Association recently released their annual State of the Industry report for water utilities.

I wasn’t surprised at the results of this annual checkup, where over 1,800 leaders in the industry identify key challenges. Their concerns about the future of the water industry are the same as mine.

  • Water supply – We’re not running out of water . . . we’re just running out of the less expensive water. As population increases, we’ll be looking more and more at costly treatment methods like desalination. Conservation and reuse are other parts of the puzzle that will be an important part of quenching our thirst.
  • Aging infrastructure – Much of our infrastructure is not only aging, but in many cases reaching the point of failure. There’s a shortfall of funds to adequately maintain and replace old pipes and treatment equipment that runs into the billions of dollars. Starting this month, public television stations will be showing Liquid Assets, the story of our water infrastructure. Don’t miss it!
  • Increasing regulatory requirements – As we gain the capability to measure constituents in smaller and smaller amounts, agencies develop more stringent requirements for removing those compounds. Costs for treatment rise geometrically as we try to remove contaminants down to parts per trillion.
  • Workforce deficit – Most of us baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, resulting in a shortage of experienced utility folks. In addition, the number of young people getting into the field is declining.
  • Money – Operating costs continue to climb. As always, there’s much competition for limited funds.

I’m hoping some economic stimulus packages will be forthcoming after the election. Building treatment plant upgrades is a great way to create jobs–at least in my opinion. After all, Water is Life.

In one of my previous posts I discussed emerging drinking water contaminants that were causing environmental groups and legislators to raise their eyebrows. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals were found in some drinking water supplies and even in the treated water in certain areas.

Now, with pressure from legislators and environmental groups, there is a push to regulate these substances.

But what are the actual health effects of these micro-constituents–if any? Will we be happier if anti-depressants are in our drinking water–or are men going to develop feminine traits from drinking water with estrogen compounds?

The American Water Works Association conducted a four-year study and found that the highest concentration of any drug detected in a drinking water system was 5,000,000 times lower than the therapeutic dose. Even people most susceptible to harm could safely drink 50,000 glasses of water per day with no health effects.

Part of the problem is our ability to measure ever-smaller amounts of contaminants in the water. When I started working in the water business in the 1970’s, most contaminants were measured in parts per thousand and parts per million. Now we’re able to measure substances in parts per trillion and in some cases at even lower values.

Logical ecology dictates that just because a substance is present in incredibly small concentrations, does not mean it is a risk to our health. Certainly we should continue to do research, but there are many more important problems that need our immediate attention and funding.

I would put replacing our aging infrastructure at the top of the list.

A copy of Dr. Shane Snyder’s Statement before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality provides an excellent discussion of this topic.

As I noted in my earlier blog about our Infrastructure Report Card, our underground pipes are getting old and breaking down.  The Water is Life site has a copy of a recent AP Article about our breaking water lines and the billions of gallons of water lost–not to mention the damage to roadways and buildings. 

Replacing old lines is costly but will become more critical as time goes by.  Nobody wants to hear about rate increases, but we have to keep our water lines intact to protect our water supply. 

There’s a new documentary that will be airing on public television this summer.  Called Liquid Assets, the show will focus on water in America–and the aging infrastructure that threatens our health and environment.

We’ve taken water for granted in our country.  Liquid Assetswill explore the history of water and wastewater practices, and expose our underground systems with 3-D and dynamic animation.

Our crumbling pipelines and treatment facilities are estimated to cost a whopping $390 billion to bring up to par.  Liquid Assets will be an integral part of educating our citizens about this critical problem.

Check out the website for more information and to see a preview of the documentary at:

 http://www.liquidassets.psu.edu/overview.html

I got a survey at work recently from an engineer with the American Society of Civil Engineers collecting data for the latest Infrastructure Report Card.  You can find more information about the report card at www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/index.cfm

In the 2005 report card, both drinking water and wastewater received a D-.  America’s overall infrastructure grade was a D.  That includes not only water and sewer, but roads, bridges, dams, navigable waterways, schools, aviation, rail, energy, solid waste, hazardous waste, parks, and security.  All items critical to our way of life, and taken for granted until the worst happens, like the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.  Or the steam-pipe explosion in New York.

I’m hoping the latest report card will show improvement–but really, I’ll be surprised if it does. 

Federal and state grant monies are almost nonexistent, which leaves cities to pick up the cost of infrastructure repairs.  In the water and wastewater world  that means raising rates–and nobody likes that.  Not even me, and I know how important it is to keep pumps running and replace old water lines. 

Unfortunately, infrastructure is expensive.  And fixing old or broken infrastructure is even more costly than putting in new stuff.  Construction costs continue to soar.  And the public is getting tired of having their bills get higher every day.  So the chance of bringing our D- up to even a C is remote.

The fallen I-35W bridge is truly a tragedy that could have been avoided.  The only good thing to come out of such a sad event is that it shows how very important it is to take care of our critical infrastructure.

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