Infrastructure Outlook: Mind the Gap, Your Drinking Water Depends on It
Fifty years after the Clean Water Act passed, the U.S. government has invested more than $1 trillion to try and combat water pollution. Now, nearly one year after passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, improvements in U.S. water systems are as needed as ever.
Approximately 95 million people still aren’t connected to a centralized treatment system, and 2.2 million people live without running water and indoor plumbing in their homes. These homes typically are clustered in rural or disadvantaged communities.
In addition, poorly maintained wastewater infrastructure and the use of synthetic materials (e.g., plastics, pharmaceuticals, PFAS, etc.) have exacerbated the problem, leading to polluted drinking water and unsafe living conditions. Such wastewater system failures were estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion in 2019.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in August 2022 the “Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative” to help historically disadvantaged communities remedy wastewater systems. This initiative is welcome as a necessary measure to update aging infrastructure and invest meaningfully in the nation’s most vulnerable communities. However, while rural communities will receive considerable support to address wastewater issues, thorough wastewater solution plans should follow to ensure that funding is used most efficiently and will have the most impactful long-term effects.
Currently, rural areas are challenged to connect with centralized treatment plants due to distance, climate or terrain. Connecting rural communities to centralized treatment plants typically requires long pipelines and hefty pump stations, which increase energy consumption and require active maintenance. Because of this, septic systems were adopted as the preferred alternative for wastewater treatment in these areas.
Currently, more than one in five households in the United States depend on septic systems to treat their wastewater, which can result in leaks and contamination of surface and groundwater resources if not properly designed, installed, operated and maintained. In fact, the EPA estimates that 40 percent of septic tanks don’t function properly, contributing toward millions of gallons of untreated wastewater and toxic materials seeping into the water supply. These malfunctions, while impacting local water supplies, also can contaminate larger water sources for metropolitan areas when they’re compounded with emerging contaminants.
Wireless Wastewater Treatment
Federal funding through the Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative could provide the catalyst to elevate decentralized (i.e., distributed) technology that provides advanced wastewater treatment in rural areas. Modern decentralized wastewater-management technologies incorporate energy efficiency, resource recovery and the ability to eliminate emerging contaminants in wastewater.
These technologies treat wastewater at the source and can easily be replicated and scaled across the United States. Similarly to how the widespread adoption of cell phones in the developing world leaped those communities from waiting for a landline, the use of new waste-management technology in urban areas can quickly and effectively be implemented in rural areas.
Investment and installation of innovative decentralized wastewater-management technologies are only the first step in comprehensively addressing the problem. Overcoming these challenges will require more than water and wastewater utilities, which suffer from human and financial resource constraints and are extremely risk averse. Utilities—especially public entities—will need help from the private sector for additional resources and risk sharing. Public-private partnerships can help transfer risk from taxpayers to investors, support the implementation of innovative decentralized treatment technology and provide expanded access to capital.
Opportunity to Reimagine
The EPA’s Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative offers an amazing opportunity to reimagine wastewater treatment and resolve the issues challenging the health and welfare of rural communities. With the right mindset in updating outdated systems with new and innovative decentralized technology, rural communities can receive the modern conveniences typically only afforded to large urban areas. The Initiative is only part of greater efforts to improve access to clean water and promote healthier lives, which will ultimately boost job creation and help rural communities flourish across the nation.