By Mehmood Ali
Access to clean water is a basic necessity for humans, but without a well maintained and reliable wastewater infrastructure, drinking water supplies are constantly at risk for contamination. According to a recent survey released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater infrastructure. As shocking as that number may sound, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, some parts of the wastewater infrastructure in New York were installed before the Statue of Liberty ever made it stateside. In addition to that, nearly 850 water breaks are reported in America each day.
“The only way to have clean and reliable water is to have infrastructure that is up to the task,” said Joel Beauvais, EPA’s Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water. “Our nation has made tremendous progress in modernizing our treatment plants and pipes in recent decades, but this survey tells us that a great deal of work remains.”
The $271 billion figure is divided into various fronts. It is estimated that $52 billion is needed for secondary wastewater treatment, which is the process of removing dissolved and colloidal compounds measured as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) until the sewage reaches a certain degree of effluent quality. Approximately $50 billion is needed to improve advanced wastewater treatment, which is the final stage of further improving the effluent quality of the wastewater before it is discharged into the environment. $51 billion is needed for conveyance system repair, a system that not only monitors the city’s wastewater and storm water lines, but also repairs them as the need arises. In addition to the money going toward repairing existing conveyance systems, $45 billion is going toward installing new conveyance systems. To fix the issues of surface runoff, $48 billion is needed for the sewer overflow correction. In times of heavy storms where excess water is a problem, $19 billion is needed for storm water management programs. Water is a scarce renewable resource, and to combat that, wastewater is often recycled. To keep that practice going, $6 billion will be needed for recycled water distribution.
“The only way to have clean and reliable water is to have infrastructure that is up to the task.”
Now that the infrastructure problems have been laid out, who is going to foot the bill to fix them? That’s not entirely clear. In 2015, the EPA launched the Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to work with communities to figure out innovative solutions to funding these necessary improvements. They also established Regional Environmental Finance Centers to work with communities across the nation to create sustainable “how to pay” solutions for their environmental goals, helping them make informed funding decisions that best meet their specific local needs. In addition to that, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund has been providing low-interest loans totaling $111 billion since 1987. Of that, $5.8 billion has been provided in 2015 alone. Grant funding is also available through the Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities program, the Clean Water Indian Set- Aside, and the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure program.
The wastewater infrastructure developments would not only sustain healthy lives by ensuring clean and sanitized water, but also create jobs for many in the construction industry. Joel Beauvais believes that in the recent years, progress has been made in terms of modernizing the treatment plants, but the new survey by EPA shows that much work still remains. If not addressed in a timely manner, the cost of repairs and maintenance could increase substantially, so we need to act sooner than later for a better water infrastructure for all.