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The Cost of Delaying Water Infrastructure Repairs

Monica Mosure

May 23, 2012

Amid the winter holiday bustle, did you catch the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) publication from December 15, 2011? Entitled “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure,” the study compares the cost of repairing our aging water and wastewater infrastructure now versus in 2020 or 2040.

 

This cost difference is examined at a number of different levels. The first is the cost of capital investment required; the second is the “gap” between that needed amount and amount of funding available.

 

The problem is more than just the increasing gap between the projected dollars available and the projected dollars needed, however. Doing nothing will lead to an increasingly unreliable water supply and higher service rates. Many households and businesses will expend an average of $35,000 to self-supply their water and wastewater needs through wells and septic systems, and the cost of filling the capital gap will likely be paid for by households and businesses who cannot self-supply. Even more concerning, water-borne illnesses will effect household medical expenses and labor productivity lost to sick time.

 

Perhaps the most interesting point presented in the publication, however, is the projected effect of a declining water supply and increased costs on the national economy. In a worst case scenario, the figures suggest the U.S. will lose approximately 700,000 jobs by 2020 and 1.4 million jobs by 2040, all directly related to the decline in water and wastewater infrastructure. These job losses will in turn effect business sales and GDP, with a cumulative loss of $734 billion in sales and $416 billion in GDP between now and 2020. By 2040, those losses would reach $7.5 trillion in sales and $4.1 trillion in GDP!

 

Sustainability water use practices have been increasing in use and have helped to delay some of the infrastructure consequences. Households and businesses use water more efficiently and will likely to become increasingly efficient in the future. Sustainability, however, is hobbled by an increasing population, specifically in hot and arid parts of the country. In short, efficiency and sustainability can only partially mitigate the effects our crumbling water infrastructure will have on business sales and GDP.

 

Upon reading the publication, ms Environmental Sector leader, John Pierko, P.E. commented on a factor not deeply examined in the ASCE report: the effect of weakened infrastructure on American quality of life. “While the effect on the economy is staggering,” he said, “The larger issue is that, if action is not taken, the probable effect on the individual quality of life, which we as engineers are guardians of, may be catastrophic. Any extensive disruption of infrastructure services could have devastating effects on humankind.” Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine the potential chaos that could erupt if faucets didn’t flow and toilets didn’t flush, particularly in urban environments where the entire community relies on existing infrastructure as opposed to wells and septic systems.

 

Shawn Arden, PE, our Water Resources project manager, also noted that currently approximately 40% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a water supply. As infrastructure fails, it is likely more people will move closer to water supplies, causing water quality to degrade even more rapidly.

 

If you haven’t already, check out the ASCE Executive Summary of “Failure to Act” here or get the full report here.