The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) made news last year when the organization pointed out that we need $2.2 trillion in infrastructure spending to keep roads, bridges, dams, inland waterways, rail lines and so on from collapsing around us. ASCE gave both water supply and wastewater grades of D-.

Now, for those of us who appreciate clean water, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) is reporting that we need to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years on potable water infrastructure.

AWWA’s groundbreaking study and report entitled, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge,” analyzes factors that include timing of water main installation and life expectancy, the materials used, replacement costs and shifting demographics. Nationally, the infrastructure needs are almost evenly divided between replacement and expansion requirements.

The report is available at www.awwa.org/infrastructure.

Cities will be impacted in different ways depending on their sizes and geography. Many small communities will face the greatest challenges because they have smaller populations across which to spread the expenses.

“Because pipe assets last a long time, water systems that were built in the latter part of the 19th century and throughout much of the 20th century have, for the most part, never experienced the need for pipe replacement on a large scale,” the report states. “The dawn of an era in which the assets will need to be replaced puts a growing stress on communities that will continue to increase for decades to come.”

Among the key findings from the study are:

Investment needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years (between 2011 and 2035), if pipes are replaced at the end of their useful lives. Over the coming 40-year period, through 2050, these needs exceed $1.7 trillion. 

Replacement needs account for about 54% of the national total, with the balance of about 46% attributable to population changes over that period.

Pipe replacement expenses account for more than 84% of the $278 billion need in the Northeast and Midwest regions through 2035. Meanwhile, in the rapidly growing South and West, expansion to meet a growing population amounts to about 62% of the projected need of $277 billion in that same time period. Replacement-related needs are a less important factor in these regions.

The required investment on a national level will double from roughly $13 billion a year now to almost $30 billion annually by the 2040s (in 2010 dollars). This level of investment must be sustained for many years if current levels of water system performance and service are to be maintained.

All this will have to be paid for by water users, meaning household water bills will go up. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve maintained in this space before that water is too cheap in too many places, leading to water waste and not enough money to invest in water infrastructure. The amount that water bills increase will vary depending on past investment, community size and geographic region, but in some communities the infrastructure costs alone could triple the size of a typical family’s bill.

Smaller exurban communities may face the biggest challenge. Places with fewer people living far apart have more pipe-miles-per-customer than urban systems. The study suggests that the most impacted households could see their drinking water bills increase between $300 and $550 per year above current levels to address infrastructure needs.

We’re not at a crisis point yet and we don’t need the $1 trillion tomorrow. Postponing infrastructure investment in the near-term, however, raises the overall cost and increases the likelihood of more water main breaks than we have already and other infrastructure failures.

The $1 trillion investment necessary through 2035 does not have to be made all at once. There is time to implement asset management plans and set water rates that more closely reflect the cost of water service.

“The needs uncovered in ‘Buried No Longer’ are large, but they are not insurmountable,” said AWWA Executive Director David LaFrance. “When you consider everything that tap water delivers — public health protection, fire protection, support for the economy, the quality of life we enjoy — we owe it to future generations to confront the infrastructure challenge today.”

“Water is a basic necessity of life,” said AWWA President Jerry Stevens, who is also general manager of West Des Moines Water Works in Iowa. “Water utilities are committed to finding fair and equitable rate designs that address affordability issues as they face the increased cost of infrastructure replacement. The good news is that there is still time to act. ‘Buried No Longer’ helps us recognize the challenge ahead. Together, we can take the necessary steps to meet that challenge.”