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Sustainable Water Infrastructure

Things Local Officials Should Know about Sustainable Water Infrastructure

Water infrastructure issues vary across the country. Understanding the types of challenges faced, knowing your water systems and being aware of the benefits of sustainable approaches helps you make a difference for your community.

  • The Facts - The water infrastructure challenge across the country.
  • What Sustainable Water Infrastructure Looks Like - What it means for a water infrastructure to be sustainable.
  • The Benefits - What sustainable water infrastructure does for your community.
  • Your Role - Responsibilities all local officials share as stewards of your community's infrastructure wealth.
  • Your Story - Past issues, solutions, and the current operational state of components of your community's water infrastructure systems.

The Facts

To understand the challenge, it is important to know what constitutes water infrastructure, as well as the state of that infrastructure in the United States and in your community. These infrastructure systems are not only an essential asset for today, but are vital to the health and development of future communities.

What are the components of a community's water infrastructure?

A community's water infrastructure includes all the man-made and natural features that move and treat water. While holistically it is all part of the same system, it is often convenient to think about infrastructure in terms of drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater.

The elements and scale of these systems vary with each community. Knowing the parts of your community's system helps you manage these systems for sustainability.

Infrastructure Can Include:
Drinking Water
  • Lands in source water areas
  • Reservoirs and storage
  • Treatment plants
  • Distribution systems
  • Collection systems and pipes
  • Pump stations
  • Treatment plants
  • Septic systems
  • Collection basins
  • Stormwater pipes
  • Green infrastructure approaches that infiltrate and manage water where it falls
  • Land management practices that keep runoff from adversely impacting surface water or ground water

How old is the nation's water infrastructure?

Much of the country's water infrastructure was built following World War II or earlier. The age of infrastructure will vary with the age of your community.

The Clean Water Act spurred the construction of wastewater treatment plants beginning in the 1970s. Many of those plants are now at least 30 years old.

The 2000 Community Water System Survey found that for drinking water systems that serve more than 100,000 people, about 30 percent of the pipes are between 40 and 80 years old and about 10 percent of the pipes are more than 80 years old.

How long will water infrastructure last?

The life span of the assets that make up our systems can vary greatly. For example, treatment plants typically have a useful life of 20 to 50 years before they require extensive rehabilitation or replacement.

Pipes have life cycles that can range from 15 to over 100 years depending on the type of material and the environment. The age of pipe is only a high-level indicator of the need for rehabilitation or replacement. Having a program to evaluate the actual condition of infrastructure will assure that investments are made where most needed.

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What Sustainable Water Infrastructure Looks Like

What does "sustainable" mean?

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as, "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Applied to infrastructure, sustainable means having an active and effective program for renewal and replacement of components at a rate that allows for that infrastructure to continually serve our communities into the future.

Achieving sustainability requires the establishment of a long-term plan to gradually and continually replace all infrastructure assets—a plan that ensures wise spending practices and a stable revenue stream for continuous support of needed future investments.

What does sustainable water infrastructure look like for my community?

The path to sustainability is the same for your community as it is for the nation and has two basic elements:

  • Costs that include infrastructure replacement and operations and
  • The revenue stream to support those costs.

Because of under-investment in the past, many communities have a gap between costs and revenues that can only be closed by pressure on those two variables.

Communities, working with their utility managers must develop strategies which lower the long-term costs or raise revenues to meet those costs. For most communities, the solution will lie in both. Controlling costs is limited by the opportunities for efficiency. Raising revenues is limited by how much community members can afford to pay.

What can I do to help ensure that the infrastructure in my community is being managed effectively?

Managing today's utilities is a complex and challenging task. Across the water sector, many programs can help utilities manage various aspects of their operations. To develop a common framework for utility management, EPA and six major water sector associations have come together to define and promote an approach through the Effective Utility Management (EUM) partnership.

Ten Attributes of Effectively Managed Water Sector UtilitiesExit - A structured, 360-degree framework for assessing utility operations and tackling the areas most important to improving utility-wide performance and efficiency. It is based on the experiences of leading utility managers from across the nation.

The EUM framework and the Ten Attributes are based on improvements implemented by utility managers to save money for their communities, help keep affordable rates and improve economic competitiveness. These utilities also have improved environmental performance by using the Effective Utility Management approach.

Effective Utility Management for Local OfficialsExit - Summary that includes questions local officials can ask to spur greater sustainability.

EUM PrimerExit - Starting point for utilities.

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The Benefits

Effective water infrastructure benefits communities in many ways.

Quality of Life Benefits:

  • Effective water infrastructure systems help safeguard public health from waterborne and sewage-related infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxic chemicals.
  • By placing water infrastructure on a sustainable path, local officials leave a lasting legacy of community well-being that passes on to future generations.

Economic Benefits:

  • A secure, reliable water infrastructure system and a well-thought-out plan for the future are essential to sustaining growth and business investment in a community.
  • A solid, sustainable water infrastructure approach can result in better bond ratings that help the community when it needs financing.
  • Effective stormwater and wastewater practices protect industries such as fishing, tourism, and recreation.
  • Cities and communities showcase their waterfront areas and commitment to clean water through effective infrastructure, which is critical to new development and related commerce.

Maximizing the value of each infrastructure dollar spent keeps user rate increases under control and helps justify when rates need to be increased.

Environmental Benefits:

  • Infrastructure not managed sustainably causes increased pollution to waterways that harms wildlife and the ecosystem.
  • Adopting more efficient management practices can greatly reduce water and energy usage, leading to decreased greenhouse gas emissions and reduced strain on natural resources.

Sustainable water infrastructure ensures that community natural resources and open spaces will be available and unchanged for future generations.

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Your Role

Local Officials Making a Difference

Why is it important for local officials to engage in the issue of sustainable water infrastructure?

Water infrastructure systems are a vital asset shared by all members of a community. Through stewardship of these assets, local officials play a unique role in:

  • Ensuring public health;
  • Driving economic stability and growth;
  • Protecting local water resources; and
  • Preserving an overall high quality of life.

The professionals who manage drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems need your support and leadership to adopt practices that will ensure the successful operation of these systems for years to come.

Case Studies of Local Officials Making a Difference

Nothing shows the potential of leaving a legacy or your mark better than real-world examples of the legacies other local officials have left their communities.

Read case studies highlighting your peers' successes in laying a sustainable water infrastructure foundation for the future:

  • Braman, Oklahoma
  • Columbia, Missouri
  • Freeport, Illinois
  • Gloucester, Massachusetts
  • Salem, Oregon

Hear it in the Words of Your Peers

Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) is a chartered body made up of local officials from across the country. The Committee gives independent advice to EPA on issues important to local governments. With fiscal support from EPA, LGAC prepared a short video and an accompanying "Successful Strategies" paper to reach out to peers about the importance of water infrastructure.

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Your Story

Many local officials know the basics about their community water infrastructure. You can contribute more to your community by knowing the history of your systems and how infrastructure has been managed in the past.

Many communities have deferred maintenance due to tight budgets and put off rate increases to avoid burdening consumers. Each community has unique water-related challenges: for example, aging pipes, rapid growth or population decline, combined sewer overflows, flooding or drought, and supply shortages.

Answering several questions can help inform your decisions as you move your community to water infrastructure sustainability:

  • How old are our infrastructure systems and their various parts?
  • Do we have an assessment of the condition of all of our water infrastructure assets?
  • What is the rate history for water services in our community?
  • At what rate have we been replacing or rehabilitating our piping systems?
  • Are we planning for infrastructure investments needed as new rules from EPA come into effect?
  • What are the three biggest challenges faced by our drinking water/wastewater utility?

Resources to help you understand your community’s water system:

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