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Thoughts From Engineers: The Hidden Monster That’s Our Failing Water Infrastructure

Chris Maeder on May 2, 2019 - in Articles, Column

An aging house built in the 1930s with chipping paint, a porch door that swings eerily in the wind and precariously leaning support beams gets attention. A bridge with rusty trusses and roads with potholes get attention as well. People complain—loudly—to their local and state representatives about the rough drive and costly damage to their cars.

There are plenty of stories in the news about crumbling highways and third-world airports, but not so much about our water infrastructure—until now. The nation’s 75- to 100-year-old water infrastructure is predominantly underground and out of sight; we assume the pipes, water mains and pumping stations are as solid as ever. And yet, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 240,000 water mains burst every year. Our nation’s water infrastructure is slowly and surely breaking down, and it’s only a matter of time before the trickle gives way to the proverbial flood.

Sometimes numbers need to be dangled in front of people to get their attention. The Value of Water Campaign, an effort initiated by leaders in the water industry and implemented by the U.S. Water Alliance, aims to do exactly this. The campaign’s report (available at bit.ly/2o5xVrn), “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure,” strives to convey to businesspeople, state and local representatives, and members of the public the value to our economy of investing in the nation’s water infrastructure while stressing with stark numbers the great cost of doing nothing.

What’s In Our Budget?

The question really should be: what’s NOT in our budget? Water has taken a dive lately in our country’s list of priorities. Most of the nation’s water infrastructure, estimated to be between 75 to 100 years old, is nearing the end of its useful life. The report projects that the cost to maintain this same infrastructure is currently $123 billion per year for the next decade. In 1978, the federal government spent nearly 78 percent of its total infrastructure budget on water. Spending has since dropped drastically; the United States currently spends less than 9 percent of its budget on this sector. This sum is significantly less than what the federal government currently spends on research for the military, energy, highways and the country’s IT infrastructure, to which is allocated nearly 23 times the amount allotted for water.

Local and state governments have tried to compensate for a lack of federal funding by increasing spending on average from $45 per capita in 1977 to $100 in 2014, but this sum only chips at the larger problem. Collectively, federal, state and local entities spend $41 billion per year on water infrastructure. The difference in what we as a competitive national economy should spend to meet minimum levels of repairs and maintenance vs. what we actually spend is a massive $82 billion per year.

The report projects that if we continue to fall short with minimum upkeep, the funding gap increases from $82 billion in 2018 to $109 billion in 2026 and then to $153 billion in 2040. The longer we delay, the more difficult and costlier repair and remediation becomes. These numbers represent the minimum needed to keep our systems operational, and don’t reflect the additional costs needed to expand and modernize dated water supply or wastewater systems. The American Water Works Association estimates the cost to cover both maintenance and expansion to meet future needs is on the order of $1 trillion per year.

Reinvestment needs to happen now, before the great U.S. economic engine is handicapped by our neglect.

What’s the Carrot?

The payoff from investment in water infrastructure would be substantial. The United States would reap the rewards of what effectively amounts to a $220 billion economic stimulus package, a number that exceeds the current GDP of 26 U.S. states. The campaign’s report estimates that the labor needed to bring the nation’s water infrastructure up to date will create 1.3 million new jobs. This is more than the number of people currently employed in 16 U.S. states. Employment that stems directly from work on water infrastructure will create 500,000 jobs in engineering, construction and related trades, and nearly 800,000 jobs will be created in all other sectors as a result of increased economic activity.

The authors of the report focus on the multiplier effect of the initial investment. Much like Roosevelt’s New Deal triggered a cascade of economic reverberations that pulled the country out of the Great Depression, the authors suggest that an initiative to revamp the nation’s water infrastructure would similarly boost spending and economic productivity.

The report details that even on a smaller scale, an investment of $1 million in water infrastructure will pay greater dividends than if that same monetary investment went into another sector such as defense spending or income tax cuts. Even a small investment is projected to stimulate additional spending and create at least 15 new jobs. In other words, the “carrot” is substantial and as robust as they come.

The Big Stick

Virtually all industries rely on a dependable source of water, some more than others. Consider this hypothetical: If one water-dependent business loses access to water for one day, the business stands to lose 75 percent of the business generated by each employee. On a national scale, one day of water disruption would result in the loss of $43.5 billion in sales or $22.5 billion in GDP. Extending the disruption to a week would result in a 1 percent loss to GDP or the potential to lose 1.9 million jobs.

It’s easy to overlook how a business’ growth often requires access to increasing quantities of water. For example, if an industry with a heavily water-based production process such as a pharmaceutical company decides to grow, it must have access to nearly 500,000 additional gallons of water for each employee the company hires. These industries—the lifeblood of our nation’s economy—have grown under the assumption that the water needed for operations will always be available. Like it or not, we can’t shake our need for water.

Why Else Should We Care?

Consider the effects of not having a centralized system of moving water in, treating wastewater and moving treated water back into our waterways. A decentralized system would shift all these costs to businesses and individual consumers, and these costs would be crippling. A centralized system allows businesses to channel their capital investments back into their goods or services and keeps this investment—roughly estimated at $94 billion—working in the national economy, where it creates jobs and improves our country’s bottom line.

This centralized system keeps our waterways clean and creates economies of scale from which all benefit. Obviously, it all needs to work to be effective. When this vast water infrastructure was put in place in the last century, the country experienced a massive surge in economic activity, growth and productivity. The country made this historic capital investment and reaped the benefits for many years. Reinvestment needs to happen now, before the great U.S. economic engine is handicapped by our neglect. 

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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