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 Resources: Water - General
December 31, 2013
Deterioration of water infrastructure

United States is losing the race

Warnings about the deterioration of the U.S. water infrastructure have become so frequent over the last 20 years and actual progress in reversing the decline has been so limited that there is reason to suspect that governments are either not paying sufficient attention to the problems or simply cannot find ways to pay for the needed improvements or provide adequate assistance to help others do the work. 

This past summer, those warnings were repeated in two different venues.  First, the EPA released its Fifth Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment, which covers the needs of 73,400 water systems across the country.  Shortly after, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing aptly titled Aging U.S. Water Infrastructure: A Badly Neglected National Problem

The hearing addressed the nation’s entire water infrastructure, which includes engineered rivers, dams, irrigation canals, navigable channels, levees, harbors, wastewater treatment facilities, and community drinking water systems.  EPA’s report was confined to drinking water systems.  But witnesses at the hearing as well as the EPA in its report agreed that a great deal of money will be needed to ensure that water in the nation provides for a growing population and maintains an environment stressed by increasing drought and a changing climate.  The money now being provided comes from many directions, but it is generally conceded that there is an immense gap between the problem and the funds being obtained to fix it.

2011 assessment

EPA’s report is limited to infrastructure needs eligible under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), a program administered by the Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  According to the Agency’s latest estimate, meeting those infrastructure needs through capital improvements over the next 20 years will require $384.2 billion. 

This estimate is relatively unchanged from EPA’s assessments in 2003 and 2007, which identified national needs of $375.9 billion and $379.7 billion, respectively.  However, the three latest estimates are substantially higher than the 1999 estimate of $224.8 billion.  The EPA noted that with the 2003 assessment, water systems and states began to use a more systematic approach to asset identification and evaluation, leading to a larger number of replacement and rehabilitation projects being reported.  Specifically, the 1999 assessment listed 61,400 projects for large and medium systems.  In the 2003 assessment, there were 128,600 projects for large and medium systems.  Based on the consistency of the monetary needs in the three latest assessments, the number of needed projects has not changed drastically. 

But how many projects are actually getting the funds needed for completion?   In the 2011 assessment, the EPA reported that from 1997 to 2011, states loaned $21.7 billion to water systems for 9,188 projects.  Also, in June 2013, the EPA reported that the administration had allotted $799 million in DWSRF funds to the states for 2014.  Neither the federal government nor the states are responsible for financing all drinking water system improvements.  Local governments and water systems themselves provide the bulk of funding through fees and bond revenues, loans, and other sources; the DWSRF is intended to supplement what water systems receive from those sources.  Even so, year after year, the DWSRF has been a major factor in infrastructure improvement projects, particularly for small systems.  When comparing the $379.9 billion needs assessment for drinking water infrastructure with the level of project funding being provided by the state and federal governments, it is clear that a significant gap exists.

Old age

Furthermore, drinking water is only one element in the nation’s waste infrastructure.  One witness at the Senate hearing stated that remediation of identified deficiencies and modernization of the national infrastructure by 2020 would cost the nation in excess of $3.6 trillion.  The witness, Gerald E. Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, provided several reasons for that staggering price tag:

  • 87,000 dams in the National Inventory of Dams and tens of thousands of smaller dams that are not in the inventory  The average age of the dams is 52 years.  Of 14,000 high-hazard dams, 2,000 are deficient.  More than half the 2,525 hydroelectric dams regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are older than 80 years.
  • At least 40,000 miles of levees.  Many current levees were built on top of or integrated within earlier structures, making it difficult to determine their ages. The legacy of many major structures dates to the late 19th or early 20th century.  Reports by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicate that many structures have serious deficiencies.
  • 54,000 community drinking water systems with over 1 million miles of pipe.  In 2002, the EPA estimated that by 2020 the useful life of 9 percent of the nation’s drinking and waste water piping will have expired and 36 percent will be in poor or very poor condition.  There are approximately 240,000 water main breaks each year.
  • 14,780 municipal waste water treatment facilities.  The normal life span of such facilities is about 25 years for mechanical-electrical components and 50 years for structures.  As with drinking water piping, there is no national inventory of wastewater piping, but estimates range from 700,000 to 800,000 miles, much of which was installed immediately following World War II.  The growing need to develop adequate stormwater capacity adds to the challenge.
  • 12,000 miles of commercially navigable channels, with over 200 lock chambers.  More than 50 percent of the locks and dams have exceeded their design life, and many are over 70 years old.

D.C. system

A vivid example of aging was provided by Charles Kiely, assistant general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, which serves more than 17 million people. 

“We maintain and operate 1,350 miles of water pipes; over 37,000 valves; four pumping stations; five reservoirs; three elevated water tanks; and more than 9,300 public fire hydrants to deliver water across Washington, DC.  The median age of the water system is over 78 years old with some pipes in service today that were installed before the American Civil War.  Once that water is used, it is returned to our sewer system, which is older than the water system with a median age of 85 years old.  The sewer system has 1,800 miles of separated and combined sewer and stormwater lines, nine wastewater pumping stations and 16 stormwater pumping stations, 12 inflatable dams, and a swirl facility.  The existing sanitary sewer system in the District of Columbia dates back to 1810, and includes a variety of materials such as brick and concrete, vitrified clay, reinforced concrete, ductile iron, plastic, steel, brick, cast iron, cast in place concrete, and even fiberglass.  A significant number of the sewers in the DC water system were constructed more than 100 years ago and are still in operation today.”

DWSRF needs breakdown

The SDWA requires that the EPA allot DWSRF grants to each state based on the most recent needs assessment.  Most shifts in state needs can be attributed to expected changes in the status of projects from one survey to the next.  The 2011 assessment will form the basis for DWSRF capitalization grants for 2014 through 2017.  The funding is allocated by first setting aside a percentage allotment, recently 2.0 percent, to water systems used by Native American populations, and a percent allotment, recently 1.5 percent, to the U.S. Territories.  The remaining funds are divided among the states based on the assessment’s determination of each state’s relative percentage of total need, with each receiving no less than the 1 percent minimum allotment.


The assessment groups needs into four major project categories.  The cost of compliance with SDWA regulations is spread across the four categories.  Following are pertinent details.

  • Transmission and distribution.  At $247.5 billion, this category makes up  64.4 percent of the total need and contains the largest increase since the 2007 assessment.  The majority of the need is replacement or refurbishing of aging or deteriorating transmission and distribution mains, which account for most of a system’s capital value.  Even small rural systems may have several hundred miles of pipe.  Other projects include installing new pipe to loop dead-end mains to avoid stagnant water, installing water mains in areas where existing homes do not have adequate water supply, installing or rehabilitating pumping stations to maintain adequate pressure, and replacing appurtenances such as valves, hydrants, backflow prevention devices, and meters.
  • Treatment.  The 20-year need is estimated at $72.5 billion.  This category includes construction, expansion, and rehabilitation of infrastructure to reduce contamination through various treatment processes (e.g., filtration, disinfection, corrosion control).  Much of the regulatory need is in this category.
  • Source.  The $20.5 billion need includes constructing or rehabilitating surface water intake structures, wells, and spring collectors.  Needs for dams and raw water reservoirs are excluded from DWSRF funding and the assessment. 
  • Storage.  The $39.5 billion estimate includes projects to construct, rehabilitate, or cover finished water storage tanks.  Again, the DWSRF may not be used for dams and raw water reservoirs unless the raw water basins are on-site and part of the treatment process.


The EPA estimates that compliance with existing and anticipated SDWA regulations over the next 20 years will cost water systems $42 billion, 10.9 percent of the total national need, an amount the EPA regards as “small.”  Most of the regulatory need involves upgrading, replacing, or installing treatment technologies.

  • Existing regulations.  Water systems report that compliance with existing regulations will consume 90 percent of the total regulatory need; almost all compliance funding will be directed at meeting standards to control microbial contamination.  Compliance is also required with maximum contaminant levels for other chemicals, mainly nitrates/nitrites, arsenic, and lead and copper.  In the assessment, $37.1 billion will be needed over 20 years to comply with these requirements.
  • Upcoming compliance.  Three proposed or recently promulgated regulations are included in the assessment—the proposed radon rule, the final stage 2 disinfectants/disinfection by-products rule, and the proposed revisions to the 1989 total coliform rule.  About $4.9 billion is needed to pay for compliance. 

Water and energy

The subcommittee hearing also addressed the water-energy linkage, a particular concern for Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), who chaired the hearing.  “So much of our water infrastructure is tied to energy,” said Schatz.  “Hydropower is the obvious example, but water infrastructure is also responsible for irrigation, which helps to grow biofuels and is used for cooling at power plants and to extract and move energy resources such as coal, oil, and gas.  When our water infrastructure begins to break down, not only do we lose water through leaking pipes, we also waste energy.” 

Testimony from the hearing

William C. Schillaci