Water Infrastructure

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Turning Back Time: Repairing Water Infrastructure

By Marguerite Huber

I am about to turn 25 years old—the quarter century mark! Yikes! While I may start to feel “old” when I consider that number, I am in considerably better shape than some of the pipes and sewer mains that make up the country’s water infrastructure, some components of which are more than four times my age.

Homes, apartment buildings, and businesses in nearly every neighborhood and city across the country are connected to miles and miles of pipes carrying wastewater and drinking water. That’s a lot of pipes to take care of!

Large bulldozer and crew at work on  a city street.

Aging water infrastructure: fixing old, leaking sewer pipes in downtown Washington, DC.

The estimated costs of fixing old, leaky, and cracked pipes through the traditional methods of digging them up and patching or replacing them could cost water utilities in excess of $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years. Innovative, lower cost technologies that could provide alternatives would have enormous impact, but how do utilities know where to turn before they make investments in long-term solutions?

To answer this question, scientists and engineers from EPA’s aging water infrastructure research program reported on innovative and emerging technologies in their study, Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program (Matthews, et. al., 2014). They and their partners conducted field demonstrations to test these new technologies, such as those that aim to repair existing pipes “from the inside out,” under real-world conditions.

EPA’s work with industry partners gathered reliable performance and cost data on technologies that line the inside of the aging pipes to fill in the holes and cracks, prolonging their life. They shared what they learned with water and wastewater utility owners, technology manufacturers, consultants, and service providers.

They tested two types of liner technologies. One was a cured-in-place method that essentially is a pipe-within-a-pipe. The second was a spray-in-place method that uses a computer-controlled robot to apply a new pipe liner.

The researchers provided reliable information on the performance and cost of the emerging technologies. Stakeholders can benefit from the work: water and wastewater utility owners can reduce the risk of trying out unproven technologies by using technologies that have undergone evaluation; manufacturers and developers will realize the opportunity to advance technology development and commercialization; and consultants and service providers will have the information they need to compare the performance and cost of similar products.

Overall, these innovative technologies can be efficient and economical alternatives to full-blown replacements of water infrastructure. I hope I have similar options when I pass the century mark myself!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Literature Cited: Matthews, J., A. Selvakumar, R. Sterling, AND W. Condit. Innovative Rehabilitation Technology Demonstration and Evaluation Program. Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology. Elsevier BV, AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, 39:73-81, (2014).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Water Infrastructure Challenges in Rural Alaskan Native Villages

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

By Matthew Richardson

I work with tribes and federal partners to protect human health and the environment in Indian Country, and my six years with EPA have been eye-opening. I learn more each day about the critical needs, challenging obstacles, and creative solutions required to provide basic water and sanitation services on tribal lands. The key is water infrastructure: pipes, pumps, holding tanks, etc. used to treat and move water, from source to tap to disposal of wastewater.

I’ll never forget my trip to the Alaska Native Village of Kongiganak. I knew that the challenges in Alaska were great, but there’s nothing like seeing firsthand what “lack of access” truly means. Because of the cold Alaskan climate, installing and maintaining proper water infrastructure is incredibly difficult. The population is widely dispersed and there are often fewer than 300 residents in each village. Many of the homes use a “honey bucket,” a five-gallon plastic bucket used to collect wastewater, that’s then dumped into a nearby lagoon.

 I work with EPA’s Alaska Native Village grant program, which provides grants to build drinking water and wastewater systems for these communities.  Since its inception in 1996, the program has distributed more than $479 million for 635 projects. During this period, the percentage of rural Alaskan homes with safe drinking water and wastewater access grew from 50% to 91%. This year alone, 400 additional households are scheduled to get improved access to such services.

 The real difficulties, however, come after the water infrastructure is built. Ongoing operation and maintenance in Alaska’s remote villages can be particularly challenging. 

To help water utility operators in tribal communities, EPA held a series of in-person training workshops across the country on how best to operate, troubleshoot, and maintain small water systems. Last year, we released online training based on the workshops.

EPA is also leading a multi-agency tribal infrastructure task force to identify solutions to these challenges. Through the task force, EPA and its four federal partners are working to reduce the administrative burden for tribes by streamlining and aligning agency policies, improve technical assistance coordination and develop web-based tools.

The needs are great and the challenges are difficult, but I am proud to help improve the health of these communities and protect the rural Alaskan environment.

About the author:  Matthew Richardson has been working for EPA since 2007 and currently manages EPA’s Clean Water Indian Set Aside Grant Program and Alaska Native Village and Rural Communities Grant Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Monitoring Drinking Water Systems

By Robert Janke

Water TowerA reliable source of clean, drinkable water is a must for any city or community to survive and prosper.  We take for granted the clean, drinkable water delivered from the tap whenever we want to quench that thirst. But few people recognize or understand the complexity of our nation’s water system and what goes into the operations required to deliver this essential human need in an unfailing way, day in and day out.

As one of our nation’s critical infrastructures, water distribution systems face security threats ranging from natural disasters, like hurricanes and extreme weather, to intentional acts of sabotage or terrorism.

Obviously, it’s important to be able to quickly detect, assess, and respond to any kind of water contamination event no matter the source. But in order to do that, it is essential to have a real-time understanding of what is going on in the water distribution system. This would help water utilities be better prepared to respond to natural disasters or intentional acts of sabotage and could also alert them to other problems like leaks in the distribution system or water quality problems.

So how do we get a real-time understanding of water system operations? We integrate a utility’s infrastructure model with their real-time or Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) data. We are testing and evaluating our real-time modeling software tools at the Northern Kentucky Water District (NKWD).

We are demonstrating how our real-time modeling software tools can be used to provide water utility operators with a better understanding of their water system and its operation. With our software tools, utility operators will have a “flight simulator” type of capability which will allow them to be better prepared to respond to emergencies and plan for the future.

To gain this understanding of the water system, we have developed an object-oriented software library called EPANET-RTX (EPANET “Real-Time eXtension”). RTX, for short, joins operational data from an already existing data system with an infrastructure model to improve operations and enhance security in a more sustainable and productive manner. RTX is built on the industry standard for distribution system modeling, EPANET, and leverages years of real-time modeling research and development efforts conducted by EPA.

RTX is open source software, and you can find it here. By making it open source, EPA hopes commercial companies will evaluate the technology and use it to develop commercial products.  We will continue to develop the RTX libraries which the water community will be able to use to (1) help water utilities field verify (validate) their infrastructure models and (2) develop RTX-based applications. These RTX-based applications will enable water utilities to better manage, operate, and secure their water systems.

To learn more about EPA’s research to keep our water systems safe and secure, please visit: epa.gov/nhsrc.

About the Author: Robert Janke is a research scientist intent on making sure our water stays clean and drinkable. He works in EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center located in Cincinnati, OH. Scientists in Cincinnati have been working on clean water issues for more than 100 years. Along with Rob Janke, the RTX project is being led by a multi-disciplinary team composed of Steve Allgeier, Michael Tryby, Lewis Rossman, Terra Haxton, and John Hall.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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The Lowdown on Why Water Use is Down in DC

By Ken Pantuck

It turns out that when it comes to water conservation, what goes up sometimes does come down.  And what each of us does in our homes really does have an impact.

Water consumption in the District of Columbia is down from an average of 125 million gallons per day in 2004 to 100 million gallons today, according to recent reports from DC Water.   Similarly, the amount of wastewater going to Washington’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has declined over the past decade.

A shot of DC’s urban water resources Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer ad454 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

A shot of DC’s urban water resources. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer ad454 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

How did this reduction occur?  It seems to be a combination of factors.  Homeowners have decided to use water-saving appliances in new homes and to replace water consumptive fixtures.  DC Water has pushed an effective and ongoing program to repair and replace aging and deteriorated sewer segments.  Proactive steps have been taken to eliminate other sources of water in the system, like tidal intrusions. And rainfall and ground water levels have been lower than normal.

Although earth is often referred to as the “water planet” with about 70% of its surface covered by water, less than 1% of the water is available for human use.  Water supplies are finite, and the residents and wastewater utility in DC are helping to protect this critical and precious resource where they live.  The story of water use in the district shows that the collective action of individuals can make a big difference to ensure there is enough clean water for generations to come.

The water conservation message is simple and something that any municipality, large or small, can easily promote.  Encouraging residents to use less water is low cost and can produce significant savings.  For example, the 25 million gallons of water savings in DC also results in a savings of $2,500 per day in processing costs at the Blue Plains Treatment Plant.  Even more important, lower rates of water use means that less water is going through a wastewater system, which can relieve the pressure on treatment plants during large storm events.  In a smaller plant, this could mean the difference between expanding the plant or not.

What can you do to help reduce water use where you live?  One thing is to look for WaterSense-labeled water appliances for your home.  WaterSense is an EPA partnership program that seeks to protect the future of our nation’s water supply by offering people a simple way to use less water with water-efficient products, homes, and services.  Get lots of tips for how you can save water in your home here.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Is Your Toilet Leaking?

By Sarah Blau

WHAT IS THAT NOISE?!? When I first moved into my apartment, I noticed a strange and persistent noise coming from the bathroom. On an exploratory mission, I fumbled around the various fixtures and plumbing only to discover that my toilet was leaking! Luckily, I caught the leak early and got it fixed.

Surprisingly, a leak like mine could waste up to 200 gallons of water a day! My water bill alone would have given me palpitations, let alone the knowledge that I was so carelessly wasting one of our very precious resources.

It's Fix a Leak Week!

Stories like mine are the reason this week is “Fix a Leak Week,” sponsored by WaterSense, an EPA Partnership Program. EPA and others are working to raise awareness about water leaks, to provide tips and information to water users, and ultimately, to reduce the waste of this life-sustaining resource. The WaterSense website provides some shocking statistics about the amount of water actually wasted each year as well as how you yourself can check for and fix household leaks.

Water lost to leaky plumbing is not isolated to inside homes and buildings. The aging water infrastructure of our country is awash with leakage problems as well. In fact, just this past Monday a water main break near Washington DC, spewed an estimated 60 million gallons, depleting local water storage tanks and initiating water conservation efforts for the neighboring communities!

EPA scientists are addressing this leakage problem this week and year-round. Researchers are working on new tools and methods to identify and monitor the weak points of aging water distribution systems. For example, researchers are looking at ways to assess water infrastructure for leaks without disrupting water supply for consumers (i.e. avoiding water shut-offs or pipe excavations). Other research is focused on preventing leaks from occurring, specifically, by examining the relationship between water chemistry and plumbing life expectancy.

As for me, I see Fix a Leak Week as a good reminder that our water resources are limited and we should work to conserve what we’ve got. Since my leak’s been fixed already, I’ll instead resolve to take shorter showers, turn off the tap while brushing my teeth, and work to spread the word by blogging (check mark that one!).

To learn more about this ongoing research, visit EPA’s Aging Water Infrastructure Research webpage, and read about one specific research project in the Science Matters newsletter: Problems with Pinhole Leaks in Your Copper Water Pipes.

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Around the Water Cooler: New interactive technology helps solve aging infrastructure issues

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Water main breakCold weather brings many things: warm sweaters, hot chocolate, football and, unfortunately, water main breaks. Each year there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks across the United States. Many of these breaks are due to aging water infrastructure. According to EPA physical scientist, Michael Royer, “drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has been in a gradual state of decline for the past two decades.”

But fixing aging infrastructure is no easy task, it’s complex and extremely costly. Utility managers across the country struggle with ways to determine the condition of their infrastructure, and then have to decide what the capabilities and limitations of available technologies might be. They then have to decide if any of those technologies work in their systems.

But what if utility managers around the country could easily share best practices? What if there was an easy way to access comprehensive information about technology and asset management for systems throughout the United States?

EPA scientists worked with the Water Environment Research Foundation and developed a centralized platform led by a Virginia Tech research team. WateriD, the formal name for the project, is a web-based interactive database where utilities can easily share their experiences and lessons learned.

WateriD is a great solution for drinking water and wastewater utility systems of all sizes. Accordong to Royer, “It is a living knowledge base.”

To learn more about WateriD please visit www.waterid.org.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works closely with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Research program and is a regular contributor to “It All Starts with Science.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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What Lurks Beneath

By Lee Murphy

WaterSupply_059They’re underground, out of sight, and generally out of mind.

Many of us take for granted the systems that bring water to our homes and take it away when we’re done with it.  That is, until something goes wrong.  Water main breaks and sewage backups are becoming more common.  They offer stark reminders that the network of pipes and other water-related hardware in many communities is getting old.

Studies like one done in Pennsylvania in 2008 identify just how serious the problem is, and the challenges of financing needed infrastructure repairs.

So what can you do about it?  If your water and wastewater system is publicly owned (by a local government) you can get involved by:

  • Attending local meetings: Ask about the condition of the system. The best systems maintain an inventory of their physical assets, know the condition of those assets, know the risk and impact of failures, and have a plan for the eventual replacements. If the managers of your system cannot provide the information, suggest they do Asset Management Planning.
  • Learning more: You can find more information on public water and wastewater systems here, here, and here

Out of sight doesn’t have to mean out of mind when it comes to our water infrastructure!  Do you know anything about the condition of the water infrastructure in your community and what’s being done about it?  What is water worth to you?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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