‘Black sky events,’ ‘cascading failures’ and our undervalued water supply

Our generally reliable water systems are taken for granted, but face a number of hurdles to overcome on the path to resiliency.

The trouble with our country’s drinking and wastewater service is, typically, there’s no trouble at all. And therein lies the real trouble. “Because the sector has a track record of reliable service with few major disruptions, the infrastructure that delivers water often goes unnoticed and undervalued by decision-makers and the public-at-large,” says a 212-page report from the National Infrastructure Advisory Council. “Most people do not think about what it takes for them to have clean water flow from their tap and wastewater removed. But these services rely on a vast network of infrastructure and assets from the pipe, water mains and treatment plants; skilled facility employees; and information and technology networks that enable monitoring and communication.”

Of course, as soon as I read that I thought about the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the drought affecting California and many other parts of the United States. But as painful in the short-term as those situations are, they are curable.

Besides, the council, which advises the president by way of working under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was purposefully looking at the bigger picture — the “resiliency” of our nation’s water systems.

By that, the council meant the ability to not only reduce the magnitude and/or duration of a disaster but also rapidly recover.

“Simply put, resilient systems lose fewer functions during a disruption and require less time and resources to recover to normal operations,” the report says.

“When water and wastewater services are lost, even for short periods, the consequences can be widespread and dramatic. When these services are lost for an extended period of time, the results can be catastrophic.”

Maybe like me, you saw a brief reference to the report in a recent ASPE e-newsletter. The mention said nearly all hospital functions could be degraded within two hours due to a loss of external wastewater discharge services.

So how resilient are our water systems? Not very. The report warns of the emergence of an increasing number of “black sky” events — natural disasters that for one reason or another, are becoming even more debilitating. 

Take Hurricane Sandy, for example, that struck the Northeast in 2012. I remember reading plenty regarding the heartache of homeowners rebuilding in the aftermath of the deluge, but less about how the storm surge affected the local water systems.

The storm, for example, caused overflows at 10 out of 14 New York City sewage plants and damaged nearly half of the city’s pump stations. 

In New Jersey, more than 200 million gallons of water swamped one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the United States operated by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. The 152-acre plant stood in four feet of water (with 15-30 feet of flooding in underground systems), sustained damage to critical machinery and lost power for three days. Extensive dewatering of sewage sludge and critical repairs to bring the plant back to operation cost an estimated $200 million — four times the commission’s entire annual operating budget.

Such black sky events can easily go well beyond the capacity of current emergency response, according to the report. The report highlights what the researcher’s term as “cascading failures,” that would quickly have a domino effect.

“Without water services, factories shut down, hospitals close, communities are disrupted, and most hotels, restaurants, and businesses cease operations,” the report says. “Water is a lifeline sector that brings businesses and neighborhoods back to normal, which makes maintaining water services and quickly restoring them after a disaster a priority.”

One of the major afflictions highlighted by the report should come as no surprise to our readers. If the plumbing and heating industry is facing a crisis due to a greying workforce ready to retire, then our water system’s piping and related infrastructure is following right behind. Most of it has reached or already has exceeded its useful life and stands ready for expansive retrofitting and upgrades.

“Aging infrastructure and limited resources for adequate response planning and resilience investments are inextricably linked, creating a complex risk,” the report states.

Here are some consequences of age: 

Inadequate capacity in wastewater systems creates as many as 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows per year, discharging 3 billion-10 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and leading to as many as 5,500 different types of illnesses.

Degrading assets contribute to an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, a number that is likely to increase over the next 30 years.

Water infrastructure investment is not keeping up with the escalating need, creating an investment gap that is expected to reach $105 billion by 2025 and continue growing over the coming decades.

The EPA estimates that $384 billion is needed to make necessary improvements for drinking water infrastructure between 2011 and 2030.

The EPA estimates that approximately $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater infrastructure within the next five years. 

The American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years simply to maintain current levels of water service. 

The council’s report confirms what it found in its previous studies of resilience on energy and transportation: “Simply put, we have failed to make reinvestment in our infrastructure a top national priority. The condition of our infrastructure seriously lags behind in an increasingly competitive global economy, but we have been unable to generate the overall public interest, support and political will to reinvigorate it.”

Besides aging infrastructure, the report also considers a couple other condition that make a difficult situation even more challenging. For example, if the “public water” business were an actual business, it would be a “fragmented” market at best. Thousands of agencies across state and county jurisdictions lay claim to being in charge of what’s a prerogative for any community’s quick recovery. Approximately 52,000 community water systems are spread throughout the country, with the majority serving fewer than 3,300 people.

Also, there is no single government entity focused on water within the parameters of the report. Of course, there’s the EPA, but the agency has more to do with water quality. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster response divides water responsibilities across five units, thus, constraining prompt information-sharing and coordinated planning, according to the report.

“A great deal needs to be done to strengthen the security and resilience of critical infrastructure,” the report concludes. “Although much of the responsibility rests with the owners and operators who design, build, operate, maintain and repair the infrastructure, the federal and state governments are critical partners in this endeavor.

Finally, the report ends where it began. One hallmark of our reliable, essentially invisible, water delivery systems are their general affordability. Regulated utilities have a tough balancing act when it comes to rates charged, but the report says that too many do not account for the full life-cycle cost of building, maintaining, upgrading and replacing systems.

“As a result, aging U.S. water infrastructure has suffered from generations of underinvestment and is now prone to failure,” the report states, adding that in its 2013 Report Card for the Nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives both water and wastewater systems a “D” rating on an A to F report card scale. Overall, the country’s infrastructure received a D+. The next such report is scheduled to be released next year.

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