Unfunded, Aging Water Infrastructure Needs a Dynamic Program to Stay Healthy
Water systems are similar to our bodies. They age over time, and the way to keep in shape and avoid costly troubles is to identify and practice continuous, healthy behaviors as early as possible. This becomes even more critical after reaching forty years old, which is the case for much of the nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure, built following a boom in development after the 1972 Clean Water Act.
We’re four years into a very tough economy and almost every city and town has been checking spending levels. Today’s municipalities are trying to do more with less, and smart cities know that it’s better to maintain the expensive infrastructure they already own than to pay for double or triple the expense for emergency repairs and replacement caused by neglect. Again, the challenge is similar to keeping a healthy body: Maintaining healthy lifestyles and keeping to a dynamic wellness program is an essential part of staying healthy. And when it comes to infrastructure, this dynamic wellness program is known as “asset management.”
Water and wastewater infrastructure is one of a city’s most expensive infrastructure assets, including the miles and miles of underground pipes that move water and wastewater every day. This underground system is unseen and often politically forgotten, but it represents more than seventy percent of the asset value of a municipal water system. Because this infrastructure is so costly, cities that are serious about maximizing taxpayer investment should start formal maintenance programs for their water and wastewater assets now.
In the water and wastewater industry, these asset management programs can save ratepayers money. Asset management programs start with rigorous analysis of all the assets owned by a city, like pumps, pipes and electrical equipment. Armed with this information, operators can then prioritize repairs and funding to where they’re most needed. In a typical utility, 20 percent of the assets might be critical to operations, yet they might account for 80 percent of the total costs and risks associated with facility operations and maintenance. A solid asset management program would identify this 20 percent and make sure repairs were prioritized, ensuring that ratepayer money is spent wisely.
For example, Veolia Water manages a wastewater facility in Gresham, Ore. After implementing an asset management program, the facility has now moved to longer-term planning, and conducts analyses to identify assets that require additional attention. This type of planning identified additional maintenance activities and spare parts that were needed for one of the plant’s cogenerators. This improved reliability and uptime efficiency, which resulted in energy savings of roughly $210,000 per year. The savings from long-term planning add up. This is just one reason why the EPA is touting asset management as a way to help cities manage public works infrastructure.
Cities need to implement these programs early on, because the longer they wait, the more likely that damage is done to their ratepayer-funded infrastructure — damage that could have been avoided with an asset management program. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ annual scorecard of US infrastructure, the quality of US drinking water infrastructure ranks as a “D-“ and the quality of wastewater infrastructure ranks as a “D-.” Regardless of whether one is bothered going home with a “D-” on their report card, the fact is that drinking water and wastewater systems in the United States are aging. Some cities have parts that are more than 100 years old. In the absence of funding for replacement, smart cities are realizing that improving their maintenance programs is the only way to run these systems effectively in the near future. It’s an important point because the federal government is not going to come to the rescue with “free money.” It’s time for creative, efficient solutions.
Regardless of how enthusiastic water professionals are about water and wastewater infrastructure and regardless of how critical they are to the health and wellbeing of our society, sewers will never be a sexy topic to the general public. Water and wastewater services are too often taken for granted – until they don’t work.
A study by Deloitte Research found that “the effect of reducing spending on maintenance is rarely immediate; politicians who opt to cut back such spending may have left office long before society begins to complain loudly.” Smart utility managers are finding that if they can effectively make the case for asset management programs, they save considerable headache in the long-term. To those entrusted with fiduciary responsibility for these systems, asset management does look fairly sexy.
When it comes to asset management, late is better than never – and the sooner cities start, the sooner they can address problems in the system that ultimately reduce ratepayer cost. Taunton, Mass. is one such example; the city implemented an asset management program when faced with a consent order for long-standing issues in their system. In the process, almost 61 miles of unidentified sewer was identified and nearly 1,000 tons of debris stuck in the system was located and removed. Removing this debris regained the hydraulic capacity of 1.9 million gallons/day, resulting in greater throughput and huge energy savings. The city no longer wastes resources treating rainwater and groundwater that slips into the collection system due to poorly maintained pipes. It also has more space in its sewer system to accommodate heavy rainfall, helping prevent overflows, saving taxpayers on treatment costs and reducing pipe corrosion.
Damage also comes in the form of unnecessary maintenance that occurs when assets aren’t analyzed. Many utilities fall victim to manufacturers, who build 10-year obsolescence cycles into their parts as a way to increase revenues. Some old parts – even parts from World War II – can still operate in good working condition if properly maintained. When utilities track the maintenance and repair of equipment, they increase the longevity of taxpayer assets.
These solutions make good business sense for the utility and for the taxpayer. For example, water main breaks occur because of aging pipes and drought, and they waste water – an effect that’s magnified in water-scarce areas like the American Southwest. It also wastes ratepayer money and causes considerable headache for the operators charged with fixing the problem. That’s why smart cities are dealing with these problems now.
We can’t hide from the fact that America’s infrastructure is aging, and that the federal government is unlikely to provide any substantial financial relief. However, utilities are not powerless. Asset management is an established analytical methodology derived from commonsense – taking care of assets that have already been purchased makes them last longer.
These programs can’t be implemented overnight, and they take political will to make happen, but once in place, they can produce tremendous taxpayer savings without cutting corners.
Water and wastewater utilities are typically a municipality’s single biggest expenditure, and they should be treated with the care and respect they deserve.
Laurent Auguste is president and CEO of Veolia Water Americas, leading Veolia Water’s municipal and industrial business activities in both North and South America. He is an active board member of the US Water Alliance, The Water Council and the innovator behind www.growingblue.com. You can follow Veolia Water North America on Twitter here, and can read more asset management success stories here.
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