Industry Trends: The Rising Costs of Crumbling Infrastructure, Part I

The Rising Costs

Recently, negligence and possible misconduct of Flint government officials concerning the lead poisoning of that Michigan city’s water supply has brought crumbling infrastructure to the national spotlight. But this is not an isolated incident; every day, additional infrastructure problems and subsequent neglect are discovered in more and more cities across the U.S.

RJN Group, Inc., knows this too well, having been evaluating, studying, designing, and rehabilitating collection system pipelines for the last 40 years. Fortunately, from our perspective, there is no shortage of engineering workforce, talent, and solutions; unfortunately, on the other hand, there is a lack of funding in the industry to meet the dire needs of the crumbling infrastructure.  What is an engineering consulting firm like RJN to do when there is not enough money to go around?  The best we can do is develop sustainable, pragmatic solutions that stretch every dollar and offer effective long-term plans.

MISC069_lowThrough this feature, we intend on discussing the rising costs of the crumbling water and wastewater infrastructure; the government’s approach to ease the problems involving this issue in recent years; and how engineering firms like RJN can help remedy this national epidemic.

The rising costs of crumbling water and wastewater infrastructure are twofold: There is a substantial financial cost in upgrading and rehabilitating collection systems, and if these systems are not improved, there is an even more significant cost to the environment and health and safety of the public.

The Financial Cost

Budgetary concerns affect all public works projects, but when it comes to water and wastewater collection systems, the financial costs are staggering: “The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that the cost of restoring underground pipes will total at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, without including the cost of constructing new infrastructure or repairing treatment plants.”1

But it is not just the expense over the long term that has governments concerned; even over the next decade alone, bringing America’s infrastructure where it needs to be is comparably expensive: “The cost to the nation to remediate identified deficiencies and support modernization of the national infrastructure by 2020 is in excess of $3.6 trillion.”2

Cities and states simply do not have the funding to improve this infrastructure, but as recent problems in Flint suggest, cutting corners to balance budgets is dangerous. This brings us to the other, even more worrisome cost of crumbling water and wastewater infrastructure: public health and safety.

The Cost to Public Health and Safety

With crumbling water and wastewater infrastructure, public health and safety is at stake. Floods resulting from dilapidated or unmaintained pipelines, sewers, and basins can put people’s homes, businesses, and property in jeopardy, not to mention their safety.  In addition, improperly treated and contaminated water can cause an assortment of illnesses, some of which lead to fatalities.  This is not something with which you can risk cutting corners; improving the nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure is critical.

During a recent Senate hearing in April of this year, Erik D. Olson, Director, Health Program, Natural Resources Defense Council, provided testimony attesting to the high cost to public health and safety if these infrastructure improvements are not implemented. For one, he said the EPA’s most recent annual compliance report for public water systems noted 16,802 violations.3 In addition, he confirmed that:

Our wastewater and storm water collection and treatment systems are often not up to the task. Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are common, when domestic sewage mixes with collected storm water in combined sewers and during precipitation events, causes raw or minimally treated sewage to flow into lakes and streams.  CSOs are, according to the EPA, “a major water pollution  concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems.”  These CSOs and other shortcomings in our wastewater and storm water systems are often causing sewage contamination of drinking water source waters, beaches, and sensitive ecosystems.3

Companies like RJN are busy at ground zero of this issue, working to identify inflow/infiltration and offer recommendations to mitigate clean water mixing into sewer systems. Due to RJN’s efforts in study, evaluation, field investigation, rehabilitation, and design, water and wastewater pipelines can be vastly improved and the public health and safety issues that Olson noted in his testimony can be averted.

The next part of our series, “Part II: Crumbling Infrastructure—Background and Scope,” will provide further details about how big of a problem this has become.

Part I Endnotes

  1. Buckley, Patricia, Lester Gunnion, and Will Sarni. “The Aging Water Infrastructure: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?” Issues by the Numbers, April 2016.
  2. Galloway, Gerald E. Testimony. “Senate Hearing on Aging Water Infrastructure in U.S.” July 25, 2013.
  3. Olson, Erik D. Testimony. “Senate Hearing on the Federal Role in Keeping Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Affordable.” April 7, 2016.