4 common water infrastructure problems and how to fund improvement initiatives

November 4, 2019 Dima El-Gamal

Aging water infrastructure is a serious issue throughout the US. Funding improvement projects doesn’t need to be.

 

Deteriorating infrastructure continues to be a serious problem throughout the US, and water and wastewater systems are among the most in need of repair. In a 2018 survey and assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that drinking water infrastructure alone needed $472.6 billion in maintenance and improvements over the next 20 years. The issues and challenges surrounding water infrastructure stem from two underlying factors—age and a lack of maintenance.

This was true for the City of Burton, Michigan, and its department of public works (DPW), which was always on its toes responding to the city’s 90-year-old cast iron water mains that frequently leaked and ruptured. In a 10-year span, the city had experienced more than 200 water main breaks, 50 of which occurred between 2010-2012.

System malfunctions like these cause serious issues that impact public safety and health. Here are four of the most common water and wastewater infrastructure problems cities and local governments experience:

 

New PVC pipe installed to replace aging water mains.

 

1. Aging systems with growing demands 

When a municipality expands and adds new sections to their water infrastructure, it increases the demands on its existing system. It’s a common misconception that installing new water mains improves an existing system, when in fact it’s merely a bandage on the problem. Connecting new sections to an aging water system increases the stress and strain on the existing pipes, which increases the risk of water main leaks and breaks.

In some situations, a city’s DPW is forced to dedicate a significant amount of time and resources responding to failures in the older part of its system. This leads to a lack of resources to support newly installed systems and preventive maintenance often falls by the wayside, putting these systems at risk of malfunctioning or rupturing in the future.

 

2. Water quality and fire flows

Frequent water main breaks have an adverse effect on a city’s water quality and operations. In Burton, for example, reducing the frequency of breaks meant reducing the pressure on the entire water system by operating the city’s elevated tank at one-third its capacity. While this helped stem the issue of water breaks, water pressure going to the public was significantly reduced. It also increased the risk of compromising fire flows—the amount of flows needed to supply a hydrant with enough water. This created a risk to public safety and potentially hindered the fire department’s operational readiness. The breaks also forced the city to issue frequent boil-water advisories.

 

3. Reliability and water quality concerns due to lack of looping

It’s not just water main breaks that impact water quality and fire flows; a lack of looping in the water systems plays a role as well. Looping refers to connecting water mains to create a continuous flow and eliminate stagnant water in the system. Addressing looping issues and allowing water to flow freely in all directions improves water quality, system reliability, and improves fire flow distribution.

 

4. Wastewater infiltration

Time takes a toll on wastewater systems as well. As wastewater infrastructure ages, it becomes receptive to component deteriorations that allows groundwater and rainwater to infiltrate into the sewer. When groundwater infiltration becomes excessive, it exacerbates the problems.

Likewise, when rainwater enters the system as “inflow” through cracks or via an illicit connection, such as downspouts, storm drains, and sump pumps, the system becomes overstressed. This puts undo stress on sections of sewers and wastewater treatment facilities and can lead to the need for extensive repairs and, in some cases, the upgrade or replacement of entire sections of sewer.

 

A broken water main from the City of Burton’s tank district.

 

Funding challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge in addressing aging water infrastructure is securing funding for improvement initiatives. Water and wastewater utility projects are notoriously difficult to fund compared to other infrastructure initiatives. One major reason is that these systems are much less visible compared to roads and bridges, which makes it harder to generate public support for improvement and maintenance. As the old saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. In order to fund water and wastewater infrastructure projects, it’s important to know the tools and resources available.

 

State and federal grants

Funding doesn’t need to come from local government alone. There are several federal and state agencies/programs that offer grants for water infrastructure, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), State Revolving Fund (SRF), and the Drinking Water Revolving Fund (DWRF). The key is knowing what’s eligible for funding before putting pen to paper on grant applications. It’s important to have a solid understanding of the state and federal aid that’s available and to optimize how you spend your time and energy obtaining those funds.

_q_tweetable:In order to fund water and wastewater infrastructure projects, it’s important to know the tools and resources available._q_Eligibility is different in every state, and it’s imperative that local governments understand the guidelines and timetables for grant submissions. For example, if a city in Michigan misses the DWRF or SRF submission due date, it needs to wait a full year before it can submit to the program again, while the State of Ohio accepts submissions year-round. It’s equally important to understand the eligibility requirements that municipalities try to address. In Ohio, the state’s DWRF allows fire flow as a justification for water infrastructure funding, while Michigan does not. It is acceptable, however, to cite the need for increased looping to improve water quality or reliability on a grant application, which would improve fire flow.

Our extensive funding knowledge has allowed us to secure low-interest loans for the Burton project through Michigan’s DWRF as well as $2.8 million in principal forgiveness from the state. This funding helped to reduce the costs that the local public would incur if this project was bonded conventionally. The city also saved over $2 million by bidding alternative materials during construction.

 

Rate increases and public support

While state and federal funding can help support improvement initiatives, they won’t cover everything. Ultimately, municipalities will need to get buy-in from the public and elected officials to support the rate increases necessary to fund water infrastructure initiatives. If one group falters in their support, it’s unlikely the local funding will pass, and the project will never get off the ground.

It is imperative that the need for improved water infrastructure is communicated effectively. As I mentioned above, this can be difficult to convey given that the water mains are buried. While Burton’s mayor and city council made water system replacement a top priority for years—valuing their obligation to provide residents with quality, reliable water services—they still needed public support for the project. To overcome this issue, the city’s DPW superintendent brought a section of pipe that had recently ruptured to public hearings and put it on display for everyone to see. During the meetings, the residents saw firsthand how much their water system had deteriorated and rallied behind the project.

Ultimately, communication, transparency, and teamwork are the keys to planning and executing water infrastructure projects. These initiatives require buy-in and support at every level. Fostering relationships with regulatory agencies, local government, and the public simplifies planning and development efforts and proved crucial to our work in Burton. In 2014, just two years after we began working to solve the city’s water issues, the Michigan Rural Water Association named Burton the Utility of the Year—a monumental achievement given the challenges it faced for so long. 

Infrastructure in the United States will continue to age and deteriorate with each passing year. As a nation, it is our responsibility to provide clean water and safe wastewater systems to the public. The tools and funding needed to rehab and maintain these vital systems are available, you just need to know where to look.

About the Author

Dima El-Gamal

Dr. Dima El-Gamal leads the infrastructure master planning and project funding efforts in our Ann Arbor, Michigan, office. She is instrumental in supporting municipalities in submitting for and administering grants and loans.

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