- Problems caused by failing water infrastructure in the U.S. due to climate change could become "business as usual" without major investment and a focus on resiliency, a senior leader in the water sector warned to mark the United Nations' World Water Day.
- The failure of infrastructure in Texas, where last month's winter storms resulted in power loss for millions — followed by burst pipes and flooding as temperatures rebounded — could be the new normal if leaders don't take steps to make systems more resilient, said Al Cho, chief strategy and digital officer at water technology firm Xylem. If weather becomes more unpredictable, that resiliency will be stretched, he said.
- To help water infrastructure reach a good standard, Cho said the federal government must invest in the sector in any upcoming infrastructure package, and also help water utilities embrace new technology through grants and other incentives. Water infrastructure is decades old, he said, and the time is right for water companies to think differently, especially as they recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Water experts have been sounding the alarm for some time about the potential impacts of climate change and a need to invest in their infrastructure. Those warnings have been coupled with a pandemic in which utilities experienced dire economic consequences and scrambled to maintain consistent service to support regular hand-washing and good public health practices.
In fact, a report prepared last year for the American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies estimated that water utilities nationwide will see revenues from customer payments drop by nearly $14 billion over the course of a year, with economic activity cut by $32.7 billion and up to 90,000 private-sector jobs lost.
Independent experts have also raised concerns about the state of America's water infrastructure. In its 2021 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the country's stormwater infrastructure received a D grade, drinking water earned a C- and wastewater received a D+. Meanwhile, the threat of increased climate-related events looms over a critical piece of America’s infrastructure.
"Increasing variability around climate weather conditions, our own aging infrastructure and its vulnerability are all combining to mean that utilities are having to operate in a world of increasingly greater uncertainty and have to translate that uncertainty into perfectly reliable service," Cho said. "To do that is really hard. 2020 was a beautiful example of how utilities were able to respond to one of the most disruptive crises in recent memory, which was COVID-19, and continue to keep the water running."
President Joe Biden and his administration have floated a major infrastructure investment as a way to stimulate the economic recovery after COVID-19, the potential costs of which are staggering. ASCE estimates the annual wastewater and drinking water funding gap will swell to $434 billion by 2029 if action is not taken. Making systems more resilient must also be a priority, Cho said, especially as extreme weather events are only going to increase and intensify.
"In order to become resilient, utilities need to model for a far wider range of conditions than they are today," he said. "I think the big lesson out of all of this is that risks which seemed like tail risks 20 years ago, are now becoming increasingly business as usual. And we can meet the needs of resilience under a wider range of risk conditions."
An increasing number of water utilities and companies have turned to technology to manage their systems, especially through the embrace of artificial intelligence, data management and drones for preventive maintenance. Meanwhile, internet of things technology has helped make management of lakes and other large water supplies more efficient and improve water quality.
Federal investment can also encourage greater adoption of those technologies that help water systems run more efficiently and effectively, especially through grant programs, according to Cho. Without government help, companies might be less inclined to try something new, he said.
"It's really hard for water utilities to adopt new technology," Cho said. "They lack the financial and institutional bandwidth to try new things. But if the federal government is able to offer grant funding to help them over that first experimental phase of trialing new technology, the federal government can leave a legacy of smarter infrastructure that will make the water utility sector more resilient and cost effective."