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For those in the infrastructure business, an important event occurs every four years when increasingly sobering reports are issued on the condition of infrastructure in the United States. America’s Infrastructure Report Card, first issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1998, provides a “school” letter grade on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure as a whole and for individual segments—such as water, transportation and communications. For water specifically, it grades drinking water, wastewater and storm water. The report includes high-level analysis on what it would take to improve the grades and startling statistics that are useful in explaining the current state of infrastructure to legislators and the public.

The 2021 report gave the following grades:

  • Drinking Water: C-
  • Wastewater: D-
  • Storm Water: D



Most legislators and members of the public would be surprised and concerned with grades like these, just as you may be if you saw them on your child’s report card. What would you do next? Call the teacher, hire a tutor, or get more involved in your child’s homework? Likely, you’d consider all of these and then take action to improve the situation. Yet, every four years, the ASCE continues to give less-than-average marks to our nation’s infrastructure and we make little to no progress.

The report card includes the following key facts

Drinking Water

  • Drinking and wastewater pipes are, on average, 45 years old.
  • There is a water main break every two minutes in the United States.
  • 2.1 trillion gallons of treated drinking water are lost every year to leaks.
  • 47% of all maintenance work is reactive, rather than proactive or preventative.

Wastewater

  • Most treatment plants were designed to last 40 to 50 years. Those built after the Clean Water Act in 1972 are reaching the end of their design lives.
  • 15% of all systems are operating above their design threshold.

All Water

  • The ASCE calculates an investment deficit of $434 billion over the next 10 years for infrastructure to improve the state of drinking, waste and stormwater in the United States.

The ASCE report cards do not address the emergence of other key infrastructure investments required to deal with climate change, overuse of current supplies, and the need to remove pharmaceuticals and PFAS (i.e., forever chemicals) that pollute the environment and have made their way into water systems.

This is no more readily apparent than in the western United States when, in August 2021, seven states and Mexico declared a formal shortage under the treaties governing the waters of the Colorado River—the first time this had ever happened. This declaration was made after a 20-year drought lowered the water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to levels not seen since the dams on those lakes were built. While the drought severely decreased the water stored in the two largest reservoirs in the United States, the situation was further exacerbated by systematic overuse of surface waters and aquifers. Moving forward, these states will be required to take a more proactive approach to water use and reuse.

While the current federal infrastructure bill provides funding for water infrastructure, the amount is insufficient to solve the scale of the collective challenge. It will require action by states and local governments to make progress. Early movers to address the issues include Florida, which recently passed SB64 that mandates high levels of reuse in 10 years; the San Diego County Water Authority, which is building an advanced reuse system (“Pure Water San Diego”) and has taken other innovative steps to secure additional water supplies by lining agricultural canals in the Imperial Valley and signing a long-term contract with the Carlsbad desalination plant; and the OneWater Nevada group which is studying advanced reuse in northern Nevada.

Innovation is also needed to solve water issues over the long term. The private sector can play a role by bringing new technology and additional sources of capital to projects. Public-private partnerships (P3), which have been used successfully in the U.S. transportation sector for more than 15 years, can be successfully deployed in the water sector. The private sector is uniquely qualified to bring together solutions, with the capacity and willingness to take on certain risks that government agencies may be less willing to accept, including the development and deployment of newer technologies. In fact, in a 2019 survey done by Ernst & Young and the American Water Works Association, water utilities indicated the top reasons they would consider using a P3 for a water project were risk transfer, innovation, project acceleration and accessing new capital sources.

Given the current need for bold solutions to offset governmental funding challenges for infrastructure, P3s should increasingly be considered as a solution for ultimately improving our nation’s report card.

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