Water Infrastructure: Meeting the Challenges Ahead

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By Katie Henderson

Last week, EPA released the fifth drinking water infrastructure needs survey and assessment. This survey indicates that $384 billion is needed to invest in things like pipes, treatment plants and storage tanks to meet the needs of 73,400 water systems across the country over the next 20 years. This huge need represents challenges to delivering safe drinking water to homes and businesses, especially as we face aging infrastructure worldwide.

Aging infrastructure is something many of us don’t think about that often because most of our drinking water infrastructure is hidden from sight. You might only notice it when it fails, like the water main near my house a few weeks ago. I walked down the street and saw water shooting dozens of feet straight up in the air. It was an impressive sight, all of that water suddenly visible above ground instead of flowing out of sight below. Our neighbors’ water was shut off for a few hours while the city made repairs.

No piece of infrastructure can last forever. Pipes corrode, dams leak, equipment breaks and wells can dry up. Failing infrastructure can be a nuisance – a minor traffic delay on your way to work. Sometimes failing infrastructure can present a severe health or safety risk like a failing dam or a compromised drinking water filtration system.

In some areas, financial need for drinking water investment works out to be greater than $1,000 per person. Today, it’s hard to secure funding to fix infrastructure problems, especially for smaller systems that don’t have an economy of scale to raise enough money through user fees. In addition, many cities are growing and their infrastructure wasn’t built to accommodate large populations. The uncertainty from the effects of climate change adds even more complexity to drinking water systems infrastructure and planning.

EPA and states work together to help systems address aging infrastructure challenges through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and capacity development programs. EPA uses the findings from the drinking water infrastructure needs survey when allocating funds to the states. Through these programs, systems and communities can receive financial and technical assistance. From 1997 to 2012, states loaned $23.7 billion to water systems for almost 10,000 projects across the country.

Our drinking water systems need investment to become more sustainable and protect public health, and the EPA is working to provide funding solutions for the water systems that need assistance.

About the author: Katie Henderson. Katie Henderson is an ORISE Participant in the Drinking Water Protection Division of the Office of Water. She graduated with her Master’s degree from Utah State University and wrote her thesis on water infrastructure challenges in the West. She likes to travel, bake cookies, and promote environmental justice.