Better With Age? Not Likely.

A new ASCE report spells out in dollars and cents terms why our nation must make up the shortfall of investment in water and sewer infrastructure

There’s a scene in the old Tom Hanks/Shelley Long movie, “The Money Pit” that relates to the status of America’s infrastructure.

The Hanks character has called a plumber to fix the piping of the stately but decrepit home he and his wife have bought. The plumber gives an estimate (outrageous) without so much as going into the basement. Hanks asks if the plumber is even going to look at the pipes. The crusty old tradesman replies, “I looked at them five years ago. Do you figure they’ve improved with age?”

It turns out that as a nation we are treating our plumbing — our water and sewer infrastructure — as if it’s going to get better (or at least not worse) over time without adequate investment.


New alarms sounding

The American Society of Civil Engineers has been harping on this issue for years with its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, last issued in 2009. Now the ASCE is out with a new report, Failure to Act: The economic impact of current investment trends in water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Everyone who is sworn to care for and protect this infrastructure should read at least this report’s executive summary, available at The picture it paints is no prettier than the Report Card, which consistently showed near-failing grades almost across the board. Some highlights of the new report:

• In this age where politicians claim to care about jobs, jobs, jobs, the nation stands to lose almost 700,000 jobs if the shortfall in infrastructure spending isn’t corrected.

• By 2020, that shortfall will reach $84 billion for water infrastructure alone.

• If we do not invest, then by 2020, unreliable water infrastructure will cost families $59 billion and businesses $147 billion.

The report, completed by the Economic Development Research Group (EDR) with Downstream Strategies, is the first study of its kind to link the condition of America’s water infrastructure to economic performance.

“We’ve all seen the impact aging water and wastewater infrastructure has on our daily lives,” says Steven Landau of EDR, lead author. “From broken water mains to boil-water alerts, failing to invest in this vital part of our country’s infrastructure has clear economic consequences. The longer we wait to make needed repairs and upgrades, the more acute these problems become and the higher the costs.”


How it costs

Exactly how do the authors of this report determine the cost of doing nothing or too little? Well, start with assessments from the U.S. EPA. The agency estimated the cost to maintain and upgrade drinking water and wastewater systems across the nation in 2010 at $91 billion, but only $36 billion was being funded, leaving a gap of $55 billion.

The study found that investment needs will keep escalating as systems age and that if current trends persist, the required investment will hit $126 billion by 2020, and the funding gap will reach $84 billion. By 2040, the systems will need $195 billion of investment and the gap will reach $144 billion, unless current funding trends change.

Now, how does that translate to costs on families and businesses? The report says that doing nothing will cause water shortages, increase rates, force the purchase of equipment to conserve or recycle water, and increase reliance on individual wells and septic systems. It also says medical costs will rise because of more waterborne illnesses caused by unreliable water delivery and wastewater treatment services.

The report also notes that doing nothing means more pipes will leak, new facilities needed to meet more stringent environmental goals will be delayed, system operation and maintenance will become more expensive, and waters will be polluted.


What to do

So, what should municipal or utility managers do about this report besides shake their heads in frustration? Get out and tell the story. Let local elected leaders know the risks of inaction. If you can’t “move the needle” at the national level, maybe you can deliver a dose of inspiration to spur progress locally. F

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 877/953-3301;


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