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Posted on 16 February 2016 by Editorial team
Posted in FluksAqua insights, Utility management, Water and wastewater community,

updating water infrastructure

Municipalities face many challenges, and none may be more costly than aging water infrastructure such as water and sewer piping. However, as we can see from the water disasters in Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio, cost savings and bad decisions in water infrastructure prove dangerous and far more costlier to all citizens and stakeholders.

Still, the bill for new and improved piping is not small. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates the replacement costs for all piping in the US at $1 trillion — money many towns and cities may have not accounted for in the past 30-plus years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that along with the thousands of miles of piping in need of upgrades, there are also thousands of treatment plants, tanks, and other components that need attention.

Little data has yet been produced and made available to assess where and when to invest. Some evidence indicates clearly the need to upgrade or replace water systems: more than 240,000 water main breaks a year release massive amounts of water, some causing flooding, road collapse, building damage, and more.

Nevertheless, the water industry could benefit from more key performance indicators to pinpoint when and where to best invest to improve their infrastructure. For example, investment in the refurbishment or replacement of water pumps may save an estimated 10 million megawatt hours in energy per year if efficiency increases from 55% to 80%. The AWWA says that’s enough electricity to light a city the size of Chicago for over two years.

Other energy savings can be found by reducing leaks. The Value of Water Coalition says Nearly one of every four gallons of treated water is lost before it reaches customers due to leaks in pipes. This also means one-quarter of the energy used to treat and move that water is wasted.


Even so, the price tag makes it a hard sell, especially when the costs are borne by ratepayers. In Canada, at least there is upcoming opportunity. With the Liberal-led federal government budget set to come down in March, there is also hope the budget will accelerate funding for new infrastructure projects as a stimulus for the economy. The electoral promise was to invest $6 billion in green infrastructure over the next 4 years, and $20 billion over 10 years.

Among the projects targeted are those with long term benefits: climate resilient infrastructure, flood mitigation, and wastewater systems. At the local level, this means shovel-ready projects that focus on revamping existing infrastructure will be on the list to get the green light for funding support, an estimated $5 billion.

There is some merit to that approach. The National Association of Water Companies reports that for every $1 billion (US) spent on water infrastructure, as many as 28,500 jobs are created. http://www.nawc.org/uploads/documents-and-publications/documents/document_88e6f490-3e0e-4ac7-9736-608fafeba6d3.pdf.

But the lesson we may learn from the Flint and Sebring scandals is that there is little attention paid to inform the public about the water they consume, the pollution they generate, and how the water and wastewater system they pay for performs. It may be time to put a portion of that infrastructure money into smart water projects which would benefit water professionals to better target the priority areas and for the public to better understand the value of the services they receive.


Like most American states and Canadian provinces, Vermont offers several good examples of what needs to be done to anticipate and mitigate these challenges. Officials with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation say water management professionals should:

  • Assess the age of their pipes and their treatment systems;
  • Establish how much time they have before replacement is essential;
  • Identify any repairs that may extend the life of existing water/sewer systems;
  • Access revenue streams (rate increases or infrastructure improvement grants) to pay for the upgrades or replacements.

Municipalities who undertake this process end up with a plan for upgrading their water systems, including different phases for assessment, repair or replacement, and budget requirements. Public and business support is often key as municipalities look to local taxes to finance necessary repairs.

Town officials and water system professionals must also take into account working with other utilities besides water, such as gas companies. Some jurisdictions also have other government agencies or levels of government responsible for different components of water piping, such as storm sewers and sanitation lines.


One of the big considerations after funding is secured and a plan is in development, is how best to repair or replace the aging infrastructure. Researchers at Virginia Tech say water infrastructure hasn’t gone far enough to innovate. Civil and environmental engineering professor Dr. Marc Edwards says the water industry needs to follow the trail broken by the transportation industry. He says studies show that every dollar spent on research related to improvements with new materials, new installation methods and corrosion control, for example, has resulted in great returns, as much as ten to one hundred dollars. While the topic is not new, and there are many institutions promoting infrastructure renewal, it still seems a long way before we get funding to support sustainable infrastructure.

With the exception of water management professionals, nobody sees the pipes aging underneath. Dr. Sunil Sunih, co-director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management Center of Excellence at Virginia Tech, says the visibility of crumbling roads, and collapsing bridges and walls provides pressure for action, unlike buried pipes. Dr. Sunih is responsible for the Water Infrastructure Database, which lists case studies, synthesis reports, lists of vendors, consultants, and contractors who deal in particular technologies.

Other innovations in this sector include developing public-private partnerships, developing education campaigns for the public, using technology to track water main breaks and to find weaknesses that pose a risk for future water breaks.

Of particular interest is the innovation in technology and processes. These include water purification systems, wastewater treatment for irrigation or landscaping (with some hope to re-use treated grey water as drinking water), lost water prevention and recovery, water consumption monitoring systems, and data collection. In January 2016, the Canadian government announced a $12 million investment in a consortium working on new clean-water technologies.

Data collection, benchmarking and performance monitoring are other means to better assess the performance of our water utilities, target improvement areas, and provide more visibility to the benefits that stem from the introduction of new technology and processes in water management practices. At FluksAqua, we are building a community through the Question and Answer Forum to share innovations in water and wastewater management. We rely on water professionals to help each other exchange their best practices on planning necessary upgrades, repairs, replacements and general operation and maintenance. Good data, evaluated against industry standards, can help us leverage funds to invest in reliable technology and avoid costly mistakes.

Join our forum and discuss some of the ways you are planning to manage improvements to your systems in the future. Time to add your voice in the mix.


About the author

At FluksAqua, we facilitate communications between industry professionals regarding new and innovative solutions. Our blogs feature experts, summary of academic articles and more.