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Sustainable Water Infrastructure

Things Local Officials Should Do for Sustainable Water Infrastructure

There are many steps community leaders and decision makers can take to achieve greater sustainability in your water infrastructure.

Manage Infrastructure for the Long Term

The demands of daily operations and the constraints of tight budgets can make it difficult to invest the time and resources necessary for successful long-term planning. However, managing and planning for the long term reduces overall costs and leaves your community with a legacy of sustainability.

The communities across the world that are leading the way in infrastructure sustainability have adopted and institutionalized an approach called Asset Management. When all the parts of an Asset Management effort are working together, you will know where you stand and where you are going, and each investment you make will give you the greatest value for your infrastructure dollar.

What is Asset Management?

Asset Management is an approach for managing your infrastructure assets to minimize the total operations and renewal costs, while delivering the service levels customers desire. Implementing an Asset Management program is built around five core questions:

  • What is the state of all my current assets? Establish an inventory of system parts and their current condition.
  • What level of service are we committed to providing? Knowing what you need to do to both comply with regulations and meet the needs of customers will affect your infrastructure investment decisions.
  • Which assets are critical to sustained performance? Know how likely it is that your assets break or fail and what the consequences might be so you can prioritize investments.
  • What are the lowest life cycle cost solutions? If an infrastructure investment choice costs less to build but is very expensive to operate and maintain, it may actually cost you more in the long term.
  • What is my long-term funding strategy? Use a firm knowledge of your long-term funding needs, including operations, maintenance, and all capital investments, to build a plan to pay for it.

The Asset Management for Local Officials Fact Sheet offers more information on these five questions.

Many water sector utilities use some portion of this approach to manage and plan, but many others have not strongly integrated this type of thinking. Speak with your utility's staff to identify the current plan and encourage adoption of the Asset Management approach.

Why is Asset Management important?

The adoption of Asset Management is gaining steam in U.S. cities. Once an Asset Management system is in place, it will deliver capital and operations cost savings.

Asset management will help you to "tell the story" of water system assets to the community in an understandable way. By explaining the real long-term needs, you can gain support to invest in your systems. Small systems that have simple Asset Management plans benefit as much as large systems that have complex plans.

Water systems need Asset Management to:

  • Address aging water infrastructure assets before they fail.
  • Make costs transparent to support financial decisions.
  • Keep assets productive, and not allow them to become disruptive liabilities.
  • Treat all decisions as investment decisions to maximize limited financial resources.
  • Make the most of every investment dollar by funding the right projects at the right time.

Asset Management requires:

  • Support and involvement of local officials who have the authority and willingness to commit public resources and personnel to maintain community assets.
  • A commitment of time and money to make cost-effective asset decisions—spending some money in the short term to save more money over the long term.
  • A team made up of key decision makers.

What is my role as a local official?

Successfully implementing an asset management program depends on the support and leadership of local officials. This includes working with and challenging local utilities as they implement asset management, and building local support for needed investments. Because they are uniquely positioned to address these challenges, local officials are key players in successful asset management programs.

Barriers to implementing an asset management program may include:

  • Expecting to see immediate results.
  • Expanding the focus from operations and maintenance to include a plan for all your assets.
  • Paying for short-term costs to achieve long-term savings.
  • Looking beyond day-to-day needs to embrace a long-term plan for system sustainability.

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Maximize Dollars through Efficiency

Regional water shortages, high energy costs, and extreme weather events have elevated water and energy efficiency to one of the most pressing concerns in the water sector.

Drinking water and wastewater services are typically the largest energy consumers for municipal governments, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed.

Energy Efficiency

Why pursue it?

An estimated three percent of national electricity consumption, equivalent to approximately 56 kilowatt hours, or $4 billion, is used in providing drinking water and wastewater services to communities each year. Water and wastewater plants often have the potential to reduce energy use by 15 to 30 percent. Depending on the size of the utility, this can save thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars in operating costs, which can be applied to needed infrastructure.

EPA is working with utilities across the country through training and technical assistance to help them become more energy efficient, using our Energy Management Guidebook for Water and Wastewater Utilities. The results of these efforts have confirmed that even modest investments in energy efficient technology practices and technology can result in a 20 to 40 percent reduction in overall energy costs.

Massachusetts Energy Management Pilot Program for Drinking Water and Wastewater Case Study(8 pp, 953 K, About PDF) Exit- An example of the savings from energy efficiency.

How to pursue it:

The first step is to work with your utilities to identify areas for energy savings by conducting an initial energy audit. Then support targets and strategies for improvement. Make sure least life cycle cost solutions become part of your utility's ongoing business model, as part of an asset management program.

Utilities also have numerous opportunities for on-site production of energy. Some of the country's leading utilities have combined efficiency and on-site generation to offset the need for outside energy sources; some have even come close to being 100 percent self-powered.

Energy Management Guidebook for Wastewater and Water Utilities and other documents about energy/water interdependency.

Water Efficiency

Why pursue it?

Water efficiency helps your community's and utilities' sustainability in numerous ways:

  • Many communities face water shortages in the short or long term. The cheapest new source of water is water efficiency.
  • Using less water reduces treatment costs, for both your drinking water and wastewater systems, saving your community money.
  • Saving water saves energy, which decreases operating costs and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Supporting water efficiency can reduce the strain on aging water and wastewater utilities and can delay or even eliminate the need for costly new construction to expand system capacity.
  • Promoting water efficiency helps your constituents understand the value of water and the high cost of water services.

How to pursue it:

  • Encourage smart water use.

    EPA's WaterSense program not only labels water-efficient products and services, but also brings together communities, local governments, water utilities, and other partners to help promote water-efficient products and an ethic of careful water use.

  • Plug leaky distribution systems.

    National studies suggest that, on average, 14 percent of the water produced by a water system is lost to leaks in the distribution system. Some water systems have water loss rates that exceed 60 percent. Lost water means lost revenue for your utility, and wasted money and energy for treatment of these lost gallons.

    Many utilities have programs to assess the condition of their piping systems and use the information to reduce the water that is lost to leaks. Ask your utilities if they know how much water loss they face and what the plan is to address it.

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Ask about Alternative Solutions

Leading water sector utilities are finding new, innovative ways to meet the challenges of their aging infrastructure. Each community has unique drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater needs and challenges. As stewards of the community, local officials can explore viable alternative solutions that:

  • Have lower long-term costs than traditional approaches, and
  • Provide the best overall benefits to the community.

Water and wastewater technology is constantly evolving, and successful strategies are being employed every day. Ask for an up-to-date analysis of the alternative solutions to spark new ideas for meeting your community's needs.

  • Green Infrastructure can be a cost-effective and environmentally preferable way to reduce stormwater and other excess flows entering combined or separate sewer systems. Runoff can be reduced through green roofs, trees and tree boxes, rain gardens, and porous pavements.
  • Smart Growth is development that serves the economy, the community, and the environment. Instead of debating the traditional growth/no growth question, smart growth looks at how and where new development be accommodated. It also affects your long-term water infrastructure needs. Sprawl and poorly planned growth can result in more extensive infrastructure to support and maintain. Growing “smartly” can put your community's future infrastructure on a more sustainable footing.
  • Source Water Protection can protect public health and reduce treatment needs for public water suppliers. Source water quality can be threatened by many everyday activities and land uses, ranging from industrial wastes to the chemicals applied to suburban lawns.

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Talk about It

Community support of long-term water infrastructure investment is critical to achieving a greater level of sustainability. Local officials can play a key role by communicating the state of the community infrastructure, the value of infrastructure investments, and the benefits to the community. Community awareness is a vital part of securing support for the investments that all communities must make—and to securing the funding to do so.

Communicating the Importance of Water Infrastructure

Water Environment Federation (WEF)Exit

American Water Works Association (AWWA) resources:Exit

  • Materials available to AWWA member utilities include:Exit
    • Consumer Handouts
    • Print Ads
    • Radio Public Service Announcements
    • Children's Activities
    • Speech Template
    • PowerPoint Presentations
    • Editorial Board Briefing Guidelines
    • Talking Points
    • Logo Art

National Water Research Institute resource:Exit

Have the Answers about Rates

Most of the funding for water infrastructure comes from the revenues generated by utilities. Rates for these essential services can be a controversial matter; however, holding rates steady for the long term is not sustainable. Due to inflation, the revenues that utilities bring in today will have less buying power in the future. Therefore, keeping rates steady actually decreases a utility’s budget each year.

One way to support sustainability of your community infrastructure is to know and communicate the facts about water rates to your constituents.

  • Answers to Questions about Pricing Water Services - Answers to common questions asked by consumers. These can help build community awareness of the issues.
  • Affordability Considerations - Resources and information about how to make water affordable. Water and sewer rates are a financial burden for at least some portion of residents living in most communities. Finding ways to assist those in need is an important part of communicating your concern about rates, while still ensuring that utilities have the revenue they need to both operate and maintain your systems.
  • University of North Carolina Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards Exit - Tools created by the Environmental Finance Center to survey and analyze data on rates from different states on an annual basis. Data collected from local government utilities includes rates analyses, annual reports and rate tables across each state. All information is shared free of charge.

Additional Resources

Liquid Assets: The Story of Our InfrastructureExit - This PBS documentary communicates the value of water sector infrastructure and the challenges that many communities face.

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Initiate or Expand Collaboration

Local officials are in a unique position to make sure all the right people are talking and working together toward long-term infrastructure sustainability. The right connections can produce both cost savings and better, multi-benefit solutions for your community. Here are some examples of areas where "collaboration gaps" can occur. Consider where greater collaboration might benefit your community and initiate or expand a dialogue with key stakeholders.

Collaboration between Drinking Water, Wastewater, and Stormwater

In many communities, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater are in the same department or work closely together. Other communities manage them separately, and could benefit from increased coordination. All three, whether managed as one or separately, have overlapping issues as they address water resources in your community. Drinking water is used and becomes wastewater. Wastewater effluent and stormwater enter our streams or aquifers, which are drinking water sources. And all three need a plan for infrastructure renewal. Coordinated renewal and integrated planning for all aspects of water in your community are more efficient and help provide long-term supply.

Collaboration across the Watershed

Reach outside your community to partner with others who affect your drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Upstream wastewater discharges and stormwater management affect downstream drinking water supplies. Utilities can share experiences and strategies. Collaborating to buy chemicals in bulk, share resources and expenses or even consolidate some functions with other utilities in your watershed can achieve economies of scale and make your dollars go further.

Collaboration between Water Sector, City Planning, and Other Infrastructure Sectors

City planning can have significant impacts on the cost of providing water, wastewater, and stormwater services. Through smart growth that builds livable communities, and infill rather than sprawl, a community can significantly reduce the amount of infrastructure it needs to maintain over the long term. Growth into "green fields" can mean building additional infrastructure that will require ongoing support.

In some communities, development plans cannot proceed until the water sector utilities examine the plan and determine the long-term cost to the community of the development.

Smart Growth Partnerships - EPA partners with federal and regional agencies and nonprofit organizations to help communities identify and use smart growth approaches.

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