Sewage Infrastructure Needs at ’Staggering’ Level

Wed December 01, 2004 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

By Pete Sigmund

Water and wastewater facilities often lie hidden under the earth, forgotten by the general public. Yet they are the largest public works infrastructure in the United States except for the interstate highway system, and, unbeknown to many, they are in big trouble.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., said infrastructure needs for these systems may exceed $540 billion by 2019 as population and health safeguards increase.

“That figure is the difference between what we are currently spending and what are expected needs over the next 20 years,” said Steve Allbee, project director and principal author of EPA’s “Gap Analysis,” a September 2002, report that includes both (drinking) water and wastewater. “I’m not going to tell you that our systems are falling apart today but they are aging, and this aging process will necessitate a significant step up in the investments that are made in the repair, maintenance and renewal of the network.”

Benjamin H. Grumbles, deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s Water Division, has said that the gap between actual and needed investments is at “staggering levels.”

“I think staggering is a fair term,” Allbee told Construction Equipment Guide (CEG). “It’s a big number. There are already 17,500 treatment plants in the United States and more than one million miles of sewer lines hooked to those plants. That’s a lot of pipe.”

“The infrastructure needs just for wastewater are unbelievably high,” Eben Wyman, vice president of government relations of the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) in Arlington, VA, told CEG. “Current needs for treatment plants, pipes, tanks and facilities are now estimated at $181.2 billion.”

Wyman said wastewater infrastructure needs just in New York State total almost $20 billion.

Warnings of Trouble

Stu Megaw, director of the Municipal and Utilities Division of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) in Washington, D.C., warned, “I believe the country is heading for some kind of major incident. It’s just a matter of time. The economic realities that Capitol Hill is dealing with do not help us keep up with the problem. It’s replacement, rehabilitation, expansion. So much needs to be done. It’s a vast problem. It’s not going away any time soon. It’s just going to get worse.”

Megaw pointed to the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome: “If you have a problem with a highway, it’s right there in front of you, but as long as your tap water works and your toilets flush, you don’t think there’s anything wrong under the ground. There is something wrong. The infrastructure there is incredibly old, outdated, and under-capacity.”

Charles “Casey” Dinges, managing director, government relations and communications, of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in Washington, D.C., said ASCE’s report card on infrastructure, being updated for a new progress report on March 9, 2005, has indicated that grades for water and wastewater are falling, not rising.

“Call it a ’D’ that has been slipping,” Dinges said of the most recent progress report, in September 2003. “We bring together expert engineers to examine the data and we grade the sectors to show the public that these systems are important but are being neglected and under-invested. The whole idea of the report card is public awareness. The more you peel back the onion on this issue, the more you find investments you have to make to keep the underground infrastructure from just crumbling and falling apart.

“Our 2003 progress report said there is a $12-billion annual shortfall in funding for infrastructure needs for wastewater, and an $11-billion annual shortfall in funding for drinking water.

“The big problem is that many of these systems were put in place 100 years ago, 80 years ago, 50 years ago,” he said. “In many cases, they are reaching the end of their design life. Since they’re usually underground, it’s easy to not think about them until a water main erupts in the middle of the street.

“We need more research and development so we can explore the issue of pipes, different materials and technologies, not only for the pipes themselves but certainly for installing the pipes. We do look at this with an eye towards the future. As we reinvest, why not do it better? We still have a ways to go to realize the vision of the Clean Water Act of 1972 that the waters of the U.S. will be fishable and swimmable.”


One gauge of the problem is the amount of overflow from sewage (an Old English word which meant seaward). The EPA estimates that as much as 860.5 billion gal. of sewage a year go into U.S. rivers and lakes, mostly from urban areas. Other estimates say that sewers back up into basements approximately 400,000 times a year, while municipal sanitary sewers overflow 40,000 times a year.

Many overflows result from combined sewers, older systems where one pipe handles both rain runoff and wastewater from homes. Approximately 752 of the nation’s 20,000-plus sewer systems are combined.

EPA issued a regulation approximately 10 years ago requiring cities with combined systems to develop plans to prevent overflows. Congress made this rule into law in 2000. EPA said approximately 34 percent of cities have complied.

Cities upgrading their wastewater systems include Pittsburgh, PA (Allegheny County); Atlanta, GA; Milwaukee, WI; St. Louis, MO; and Detroit, MI. The upgrades generally run approximately $3 billion.

“The basic point is that sewer overflows are a large national problem and the problem did not develop overnight,” said EPA’s Grumbles, in a newspaper interview. “It developed over many decades.”

EPA’s Allbee told CEG that overflow is “a significant national problem very closely associated with aging of the system and operation and maintenance.”

“A lot of overflows are caused by blockages of sewer lines, some result from maintenance and some result from failure of maintenance,” he said.

“Others result from failures in design of the systems. Overflows are a significant problem in many locations throughout the country and people are very heavily focused on this. It’s demanding, but it requires resources to fix. They don’t just happen to be fixed without someone putting energy and effort towards it.”

ASCE’s Casey Dinges said, “Combined sewers are all over the country. You end up dumping into Lake Michigan in the case of Milwaukee or the Anacostia River, which flows into the Potomac River, in the case of Washington, D.C. They are building a new baseball stadium near overflow area in Washington and it doesn’t smell very nice during the summer. There are engineering ways to address these issues. It’s just a question of getting the money.”


As population increases, the demand on communities to invest in their aging systems is growing rapidly.

Renewal of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is sometimes funded from cash flows and sometimes from bonding.

“User fees will have to grow,” Allbee said. “My view is that the vast majority of investment will come from users. We will have to pay a higher water and sewer bill as a reflection of the urbanization of the country. There’s virtually no other way to think about it. As systems get older, the amount of money to sustain these systems and meet expected service levels will increase. We will have to think about this from a public policy standpoint and take action along these lines.”

Trust Fund?

Allbee said that numerous ideas will continue to be discussed, including a trust fund from revenues collected through some sort of tax or charge system.

“This is a serious public policy discussion, but my take is that a trust fund is not very likely in the foreseeable future,” he told CEG. “I don’t see anything in the federal budget which says there will be a lot of new funding initiatives out there.”

Cuts in Budget

Appropriations for wastewater needs have been approximately $1.35 billion for the past eight years. The White House this year proposed $850 million for wastewater and $850 million for drinking water, through state revolving fund programs.

In past years, Congress has raised the spending to the $1.35-billion level. In late November, however, the House of Representatives failed to raise the amount, with the Senate alone proposing $1.35 billion.

“There was suddenly a $500-million gap [between the administration and House vs. the Senate proposal],” said NUCA’s Eben Wyman. “We were only able to restore $250 million of it [as part of the Omnibus Spending Bill]. It’s a 20-percent cut from last year and $250 million less than during the past 10 years. This is a big step in the wrong direction. The administration doesn’t seem to get it when it comes to infrastructure.”

Wyman said EPA’s $540-billion gap in meeting water infrastructure needs assumed level funding of $1.35 billion.

“Now the gap will be worse because of the reduction in spending,” he said.

The 108th Congress earlier in the year had introduced two clean water bills in the House, a clean water bill in the Senate, and a combined clean water and drinking water bill in the Senate. One of the House bills would have provided $25 billion for clean water state revolving funds over five years.

All the bills received favorable committee votes but none could get to the floor.

Large Potential Market

Wyman said NUCA would like to have seen a $3.2-billion appropriation just on the clean water (wastewater) side because the needs are so great

Asked about the potential market for contractors, he replied, “If water infrastructure were fully funded, there would be an unbelievable amount of job creation over the next four years, with refurbishment of neighborhoods, and public health improving. It really is a no-brainer.”