Drinking Water Infrastructure: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

By Vince Gallo

A huge investment is needed to maintain the massive network of infrastructure that delivers water to our taps.

A huge investment is needed to maintain the massive network of infrastructure that delivers water to our taps.

Did you ever think about how that clean, clear, and safe drinking water makes it to your kitchen faucet? Or, when you pass one of those huge, blue water towers: why it’s there? Most of us have never really considered the vast amount of infrastructure needed to bring water from its source to your tap. In reality, the network of pipes, pumps, power generators, reservoirs, and fixtures responsible for delivering drinking water is massive.

Safe drinking water infrastructure can be described as a silent industry, one we tend not to think about until it is not working properly. Floods, hurricanes, spills, and other emergencies are often the only times we give drinking water infrastructure any thought at all. Maybe that’s because in the last four decades, since passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, we have been blessed with the promise of a continuous supply of fresh, safe drinking water.

One of the key successes of the Safe Drinking Water Act is the amount of financing provided by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund or DWSRF. The DWSRF was established by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, and it has been a major success.

The DWSRF works like this: EPA grants funds to each state which are deposited into a special dedicated loan fund, where recipients (typically public water systems) also deposit a 20% match for each grant. The state then lends these funds to individual water systems to improve existing infrastructure or to build new systems. The water systems repay the loans to the state DWSRFs over 20 or 30 years, and – in some cases – some or all of the loan can be forgiven if the system serves an economically disadvantaged community.

Since EPA awarded the first DWSRF grants in 1997 the progress has been remarkable. In the mid-Atlantic, EPA has provided over $1.8 billion in assistance for water infrastructure assistance. Across the country, the DWSRF grants combined with the state match contributions, loan principal and interest repayments, earned interest, and funds borrowed via municipal bonds, have made possible $30.1 billion (with a “B”!) in financial assistance to public drinking water systems. That’s a lot of pipe!

Though the success of the DWSRF program is indisputable, many challenges remain. The current financing need for public water infrastructure is estimated at $384 billion and growing. At the same time, changes in water resources due to a changing climate complicate the task of reliably providing safe drinking water.

Here in the mid-Atlantic, the DWSRF has supported projects to meet challenges like drought conditions by funding water line replacement and water metering projects which help preserve water resources. The DWSRF has also helped water systems build resilience to flooding by using DWSRF funds to locate new water infrastructure outside of flood-prone areas. Projects like these mean that the DWSRF is well-positioned to leverage its success into the future, where it will be a major player – albeit not the only one – in finding and funding solutions to increasingly complex water resource challenges.

Wow! All this talk has made me thirsty. I think I’ll drink a nice, cool glass of water straight from the tap, thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act and the DWSRF.

About the author: Vince Gallo is a financial analyst in the Office of Infrastructure and Assistance in EPA’s Water Protection Division. He has over 25 years of experience in the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund programs. Outside of the office, Vince enjoys traveling.