Crumbling Water Facilities Need Central Role in Infrastructure Proposals

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COMMENTARY | America’s network of drinking water plants, wastewater treatment facilities and subterranean pipes is in dire need of fixing. It has been deteriorating for years, jeopardizing the health of millions.

Headlines for President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill are mainly about roads and bridges, but the most pressing public health need is buried underground and out of sight. 

America’s network of drinking water plants, wastewater treatment facilities and subterranean transmission pipes is in dire need of fixing. It has been crumbling for years, jeopardizing the health of millions. Estimates are that it will take from $385 billion to $1.3 trillion to upgrade, replace, and expand U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years.  

As Congress and the White House debate allocations in the infrastructure legislation proposals, it’s critical for water systems to play a central role in any national investment strategy. With some strategic planning and engineering, water system repairs and improvements can boost public health—and ultimately save billions of dollars for taxpayers.

The highest-profile public works disaster of the past decade involved the pollution of drinking water with lead in Flint, Michigan. After seven years, $400 million of emergency government spending, and a $650 million civil settlement, Flint has safe water again.

But significant water safety problems remain largely under the public radar. A nine-month investigation of tap water quality across the nation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian newspaper found 118 of the 120 samples had concerning levels of the industrial chemical PFAS, or arsenic above the recommended maximum, or detectable amounts of lead.

In rural areas, one of every five private drinking water wells is polluted with contaminants at levels exceeding EPA standards. 

These failures have led to a crisis in confidence for U.S. consumers. Though the cost of drinking water from the home tap is negligible, Americans increasingly are turning to costly and environmentally wasteful bottled water, which has nearly doubled in sales in the past 15 years. About 20% of Americans now drink primarily bottled water. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. After passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the U.S. launched a modernization campaign that gave it one of the safest and most reliable water supplies in the world. But in the five decades since, too little attention has been paid to water infrastructure, and the result has been public health crises in places like Flint and Newark, N.J., which faced its own lead pollution danger.

A key part of the solution is overhauling wastewater treatment. 

In the Covid-19 pandemic, public health officials successfully tested effluent to track the rise and fall of virus levels in communities across the US and the world. But sometimes society’s use of chemicals outpaces the facilities’ ability to treat pollutants. 

Male fish in the wild have been growing eggs because of rising levels of hormone pollution in streams, likely from human birth control pills, that passed untreated through effluent facilities. Reefs and other marine life have been hurt by rising levels of pollution from microbeads from cosmetics and cleaning products, which many existing wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove. High levels of lawn fertilizer in stormwater clogs many lakes with algae and other unwanted plants in summer. 

Investments Prevent Problems, Save Money

Thoughtful infrastructure investment in wastewater systems can make a vast difference—while saving money in the long run, too.

In the same way that smart home technologies can help reduce heating, cooling and electricity bills, wastewater pipes can be designed smartly to detect when unusually high loads of pollution are flowing toward treatment plants. 

Smart technologies can detect and prevent leaks in underground pipes and provide important warnings for underground clogs that otherwise might force system shutdowns. They also can track factories that illegally dump chemicals into city systems, a practice that, if undetected and unprosecuted, raises treatment costs for all taxpayers and the environment.  

Because the price of emergency water system repairs can be so vast—water is shut down, streets are dug up, homes are evacuated—smart technology on wastewater systems saves millions. Forward-thinking cities like El Paso, Texas are reaping the gains from investing in new wastewater technologies.

Water infrastructure is never sexy, but it is always critical. Potholes on roads and bridges are obvious to voters and politicians. Pollutants like lead in underground pipes are harder to track and repair. However, the consequences of ignoring water pollutants can be much greater.

America’s water treatment facilities have been overlooked for too long. It’s time to fix the steady stream of water problems before they become a flood. 

Ari Goldfarb is CEO of Kando, an Israel-based company providing data-driven wastewater management solutions.

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