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Unfunded, Aging Water Infrastructure Needs a Dynamic Program to Stay Healthy

Such a program is known as “asset management,” and it’s a necessary step to reduce government costs.

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.

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