Water is Our Most Precious Resource
The American Jobs Plan – often referred to as the Biden Infrastructure Bill – totals around $2 trillion. There are myriad items in the bill, and we’re going to start looking at them in greater detail, because that’s where the devil makes his home. Today we’ll begin from the $111 billion allotted for “water infrastructure.” That’s a pretty all-encompassing term, broken down as follows in the draft bill: $45 billion for the replacement of lead pipes and service lines; $10 billion for monitoring/remediation of contamination; $56 billion for the modernization of drinking water, wastewater (sewage), and storm water systems; $16 billion to plug orphan oil and gas wells whose emissions – chiefly methane gas – are contaminating local air and water. There are additional funds for “resilience solutions” for drought- and other climate change-affected areas.
There aren’t many specifics publicly-available yet (the bill hasn’t been voted on yet, and will certainly undergo changes), but here’s the excerpt from the official White House Fact Sheet that addresses water infrastructure specifically:
- Replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines. According to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Lead can slow development and cause learning, behavior, and hearing problems in children, as well as lasting kidney and brain damage. President Biden believes that no American family should still be receiving drinking water through lead pipes and service lines. To eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in the country, he is calling on Congress to invest $45 billion in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) grants. In addition to reducing lead exposure in homes, this investment also will reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and childcare facilities.
- Upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America. Aging water systems threaten public health in thousands of communities nationwide. President Biden will modernize these systems by scaling up existing, successful programs, including by providing $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities across the country. President Biden’s plan also provides $10 billion in funding to monitor and remediate PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems, including drainage fields.
It’s a lot of money, agreed. But then, we’re talking about a lot of infrastructure, much of it out of sight and a lot of it, underground. And it’s not in good shape, so full replacement – or new technologies – are going to be required. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure Report Card recently (2021). Here’s how the ASCE graded the U.S. water systems: Dams: D (there are 2,300 U.S. dams with “high-hazard” potential); Drinking water: C-; Storm water treatment systems: D; Wastewater treatment systems: D+. That’s not a report card to write home about.
Some examples of our inadequate, wasteful, and harmful water infrastructure – an infrastructure which is old (in many places, over a century and in most, more than half a century old): each day, 6 billion gallons are lost – that’s ten times the holding capacity of the Piney Point holding pond in Bradenton, one of whose walls is collapsing. A water main (i.e. a central transmission line) breaks every two minutes.
In addition, many regions of the U.S. are now threatened by climate-change threats to their water systems: saltwater incursion is occurring in coastal areas due to rising sea levels, and one of the country’s major water sources, the Colorado River, from which 10% of the U.S. population gets its water, is rapidly being depleted. Thus the funding for “resilience solutions” and climate change-affected water systems noted above.
There are 50,000 separate water systems across the country – that’s nearly four times the number of school systems (13,000), and this tremendous dispersion of authorities – privately owned, managed and operated through state and/or local subsidiaries – is going to require masterful administration both of funds and implementation. The funding will come from above – the federal government – but how exactly it will be administered is unclear. Will a separate administrative authority be established? And how long will the fund be operational? It’s been estimated that full replacement of our drinking water infrastructure would require 20 years, but we don’t have that kind of time.
Let’s consider transmission lines extending to residential, public, and commercial consumers. It’s estimated that the U.S. has 6.1 million lead service lines still carrying water. One problem: many of these are, as we noted, extremely old (a century and in some cases, even more), and in many cases, we don’t know their exact location or route. This will require a country-wide surveying project before replacement work begins, and surveys don’t come cheap. Of the $45 billion in the bill for this task, (at least) $30 billion will be required just for the replacement of lead lines with copper ones; much of the rest will, inevitably, be consumed by the surveys for those 50,000 systems. An EPA rule has required that all systems must “identify and make public the location of lead service lines” by 2024 (recently, an extension has been requested), with the mapping of daycare centers and schools to precede that of residential-commercial consumers.
Where are the qualified personnel going to be found for a job this big, one that will certainly require at least a decade even under ideal circumstances? And how exactly will the replacement projects be managed from a logistical standpoint? Let’s say daycare centers and schools get first priority, as they do for mapping. What about other public buildings? What about healthcare facilities like hospitals? At the granular level, how will this work when the water company replaces the main service lines in your neighborhood? Where will you – and your neighbors – go during the days when there’s no running water? Perhaps you can afford to decamp to a nearby hotel, but what if you’re living in public housing and the water’s shut off for a week or ten days? What then?
Another point: water is delivered via a main transmission line to neighborhoods, commercial centers, apartment complexes – i.e. a “central line” – but each billed consumer (house / shop / apartment) has an individual line which passes through a meter. Typically, the provider is responsible for the cost of maintaining, repairing, upgrading and/or replacing the main/central line, but the individual consumer assumes responsibility for the extension of the line from their lot line/boundary to their home, etc. The average estimated cost of replacing such individual lines is between $2,000 and $3,000 (nationwide – costs vary depending on region and length of line). Many consumers don’t have the money for the extension of the line, while others (e.g. apartment complex owners) will refuse to pay for said extensions. Unfortunately, however, if you replace the main line you have to replace the individual line – when copper pipes are joined to lead ones, this results in a process known as galvanic corrosion, which increases the amount of toxic contaminants entering the home/building/school. Conclusion: the entire system, main and individual lines, will have to be replaced. And that’s not all: some of the nation’s indoor plumbing and water fixtures still feature lead pipes. Can all this get done for $30 billion? We very much doubt it. It might be preferable to see the water infrastructure investments as a down payment or as a way of jump-starting this massive project.
Once the money starts flowing (figuratively speaking), how will systems be prioritized? Will every single one of the country’s 50,000 systems be given an individual rating for age/degree of collapse/lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals in its pipes? This should be part of the centralized planning system, and money should go first to the oldest, most threatened and most toxic districts in the country – which, we’d be willing to bet, will also be located in some of our poorest zip codes. In fact, it might be interesting to create maps of our most degraded water infrastructure and overlay them with median income figures and racial demographics.
Is this a viable project? In some cases, it will be. But in others, it might be smarter, cheaper (in the long term), far more efficient and climate-resilient to invest in new technologies while we’re rebuilding our water infrastructure system. For example: we use “clean” water, for the most part, for many water-intensive purposes that don’t require it. Through smart collection and treatment systems, 70% of our graywater could be recycled for irrigation of plants, trees, shrubs and grasses. And there are new technologies coming online for basic, water-intensive requirements such as toilet flushing: saltwater, electrical current, even air pressure systems can be employed for flushing, which is one of the biggest components of water consumption. Along all three of our coasts, desalinization can be accomplished using solar energy and graphene membranes, in which sea water is heated by the sun and run through membranes, resulting in clean, drinkable water; could this solution be employed widely in all our coastal cities?
We need to think just as creatively about how to rebuild our water infrastructure as we do about our interstate highway system or our residential housing infrastructure.