The American Water Works Association (AWWA) called it more than two decades ago, proclaiming that a new era was coming. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, progress was the theme, and the United States’ water infrastructure underwent a remarkable transformation. We have been enjoying some of the best water and sanitation systems since.
Just after the turn of the millennium, however, the AWWA predicted that most of that water and wastewater infrastructure was going to reach the end of its service life nearly simultaneously. They named it the Replacement Era.
It was no Chicken Little tale. Warnings kept resurfacing, with the American Society of Civil Engineers finally delivering a withering 2021 report card that gave U.S. wastewater and drinking water infrastructure a D+ and C-, respectively.
Thinking Differently about Building Infrastructure
A 2020 estimate of the investment needed to replace all those underground pipes and treatment facilities came to a staggering $4.5 trillion. The recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will deliver the largest water infrastructure investment in history, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.
To fill the gap are newer infrastructure delivery modes. Many entities are now leasing a water treatment plant or have entered into agreements to shift risk to private water companies that are better equipped to manage risk, secure financing, and operate and maintain plants.
Why Is It Happening All at the Same Time?
Why now? The useful lifespan of a treatment plant usually falls between 20 and 50 years. The nation has 16,000 wastewater treatment plants that operate at a high average of 81% of capacity, and 15% are operating at or over capacity, so increasing demand contributes to wear and tear.
The nation’s 2.2 million miles of drinking water pipe is suffering main breaks every two minutes, with leaks and breaks wasting about 6 billion gallons of drinking water per day. A great deal of lead pipe also needs replacing.
But one clear dynamic is largely responsible for the bubble of water crises, leaks, and breakdowns, the AWWA said: Pipes from the late 1800s had a stellar life expectancy of 120 years. Changing materials and manufacturing methods in the 1920s, however, resulted in lower, 100-year pipe lifespans. Quality slipped again for pipes from the Baby Boom era, providing only 75-year longevity.
So, the diminishing pipe durability curve puts a century’s worth of expiration dates frighteningly close to one another. All that pipe is expected to soon start leaking, bursting, breaking, and corroding.
Ways Forward for Water Infrastructure
How will the nation deal with the Replacement Era? Lease arrangements and other agreements, including public-private-partnership, build-own-operate, and build-own-operate-transfer, are new ways to marshal water infrastructure companies to absorb much of the shock. Companies can bill for water or wastewater treatment services or simply collect lease payments for the use of the plant and recoup the construction costs over the long term.
Another innovation is decentralized distributed treatment, which places smaller plants and pipes directly where they are needed so that long, expensive pipe runs can be avoided.
New thinking brought the nation some of the best water and sanitation systems in the world. Now, new thinking will get us through the Replacement Era and ready for a challenging water future.