Water infrastructure encompasses the systems and facilities that service, store, and transport drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater. This infrastructure is of vital importance to public health, the economy, and our environment, and requires perpetual investment and innovative problem-solving. In the U.S., water utilities distribute 39 billion gallons of potable water and treat approximately 32 billion gallons of wastewater daily. This is made possible by millions of miles of pipes and other water infrastructure, much of which is underground, aging, and expensive to replace.
Major Investment Needed
Current water infrastructure investment needs are substantial, requiring extensive upgrades, expansions, and replacements of water infrastructure across the country. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated U.S. water infrastructure a “D” and U.S. wastewater infrastructure a “D+.” In 2019 alone, $7.6 billion worth of treated water was lost due to leaky pipes. Much of the grey infrastructure (conventional infrastructure such as piping) in the U.S. was built in the early to mid-1900s and has exceeded its lifespan. This has prompted a modern replacement era, requiring the restoration of most of our water infrastructure before 2040. In addition to aging infrastructure, additional investment is needed to account for climate resiliency, demographic changes, water regulation compliance, and costly operation and maintenance.
EPA estimates that infrastructure investment needs are $472.6 billion over the next 20 years for drinking water and $271 billion for wastewater over the next 25 years. ASCE estimates the total water infrastructure need over the next 20 years is more than $3 trillion, with an investment gap of $2.2 trillion. It says closing the investment gap would protect public health and the environment, and provide significant economic benefits.
Green Infrastructure Opportunity
One innovative, cost-effective strategy that lowers the funding gap, reduces stress on wastewater systems, increases climate resiliency, and provides social benefits is green infrastructure. Green infrastructure, or living infrastructure, takes advantage of natural systems to store, filter, and reduce the flow of stormwater. Green infrastructure can take many forms, such as rainwater harvesting, rain gardens, planter boxes, bioswales, permeable pavements, green streets, green parking, green roofs, urban tree canopies, and land conservation. This infrastructure is largely self-sufficient and naturally reduces flow to sewer systems or surface waters. Importantly, green infrastructure can “build social capital in traditionally underserved communities.”
Many cities across the nation are implementing green infrastructure – one hot spot is Newark, New Jersey. Like many other urban cities across the U.S., Newark’s water infrastructure is hundreds of years old, contains lead piping, and often suffers from combined sewer overflows (during heavy precipitation events, combined sewer systems can exceed capacity and release wastewater directly into water bodies.) Roughly 70% of the city’s footprint consists of impervious surfaces that block water from naturally permeating into the ground, driving combined sewer overflows. Sewer overflows pose a threat to human health and the environment and can be mitigated by increasing pervious surfaces (such as green spaces).
Newark, NJ: A Green Hot Spot
Newark has a D.I.G. (Doing Infrastructure Green) coalition consisting of civic, academic, state, regional, and neighborhood organizations that promotes the installation of green infrastructure. Newark D.I.G. receives funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and has over 70 projects, including the creation of parks, rain gardens, and community gardens; a free rain barrel program; an “adopt a catch basin” program; and tree planting events. These initiatives improve stormwater management, increase climate resiliency, and invite community members to be part of the solution. Increasingly, stormwater management strategies such as green infrastructure are required for new and existing development.
The state of New Jersey recently amended state stormwater management rules to require green infrastructure measures in planning beginning March 2021. Communities looking to implement green infrastructure can utilize the Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center for technical assistance and financing strategies, and apply for loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
Green infrastructure builds community and provides lasting financial, ecological, and social benefits. Financially, this is a low-cost solution that avoids significant grey infrastructure implementation and operational costs, provides job opportunities, and increases nearby property values. Ecologically, green infrastructure projects directly sequester carbon, improve water and air quality, reduce flooding, and provide habitat for wildlife. Socially, living infrastructure improves public health, maximizes recreational spaces and community livability, and improves local aesthetics. Moving forward, investment in green infrastructure projects is key to bolstering climate resiliency and the economy, safeguarding public health and the environment, and revitalizing our nation’s water infrastructure.