Water utilities have been facing issues across Pennsylvania for years, due to a lack of attention to what they do: which is to provide safe and clean drinking water. Many of us take for granted that every morning when we wake up, we will turn on the tap to brush our teeth and the water will be there.
Recently, there was a water utility in central Pennsylvania that had to put out a notice to its customers to minimize water consumption because of an issue at their water treatment plant. In America, there are 850 water mains breaks every day, costing ratepayers $3 billion in repair costs annually. There is a great website which tracks this information: www.watermainbreakclock.com.
These issues boil down to one conclusion: our water infrastructure is old and we need to look at different and unique approaches to fix our greatest asset, clean drinking water.
To use a water pun, let’s flush out the “our infrastructure is old.” The age of water infrastructure varies throughout the Commonwealth; Philadelphia is on a one-hundred to two-hundred-year replacement cycle. In Pittsburgh, the water infrastructure is on roughly a four-hundred-year replacement cycle. In some of the smaller communities across the state, it is not unusual for communities to be on a nine-hundred-year replacement cycle with water infrastructure.
What does this mean? Given the various times mentioned earlier, if the water infrastructure was installed around the time our James Monroe became President, the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, or if you were around when King of Connacht was in power in Ireland, you would just now be replacing your water infrastructure. The crux of the problem is in the Commonwealth and the 53,000 water utilities across the country is that we have not invested in our water infrastructure, period.
Paying for the fix is not as simple as raising rates.
Many communities have had the discussion of raising rates, but to get to an acceptable or replacement (fifty to seventy-five years) a utility most likely would put its ratepayers into shock, and for a certain population of customers would make it unaffordable.
So, what is the fix? There needs to be a two-pronged approach.
First, water utilities must look beyond the problem we are faced with today and adopt strong asset management programs with predictive analysis. This would allow them to work smarter, and not harder. They would be able to know where its next water break is going to be rather than patching the same pipe, eight times, spending operational dollars, and then putting it on the list for their capital program.
Second, state government needs step in and provide further funding to programs like PA-H20 and PA Small Water and Sewer, to name a few. It also can look internally at the popular Pennvest Program. Pennvest is funded by the State Revolving Fund Dollars we get from the federal government each year. Pennvest has two programs, one for drinking water systems and the other for sewer systems. Each year, there are dollars left on the table to the tune of millions on the sewer system side.
Given the problems we have with our aging infrastructure, now would be a good time to look how to maximize our dollars for the benefit of providing what is essential to life, clean and safe drinking water..