As Population Grows, Water Infrastructure Must Be Updated
As economies grow and populations increase, we can expect new and greater challenges. In the United States, programs to maintain
and upgrade the infrastructure for sewage treatment, storm water management, and drinking water treatment and distribution have been
inadequately funded over the last half-century.45 Some
experts have described the state of infrastructure investment as “woefully under funded” since the 1990s.46
The U.S. EPA recently estimated that water utilities must increase investments nationally by $151 billion (USD) over the next two decades to maintain
public water infrastructure and ensure safe water supplies.47 The American
Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure note some drinking water systems and sewer systems are more than 100 years old, and many
are past their recommended life expectancy.48 The Report Card indicated an
annual national shortfall of $11 billion (USD) and $12 billion (USD) for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, respectively.
Canadians recently learned in Justice O’Connor’s Report on the Walkerton Inquiry that improving Ontario’s water delivery system could require sizable investments,
including: one-time cost for implementing the recommendations of $99 to $289 million (CAD); ongoing costs of $17 to $49 million (CAD) per year; one-time costs for steps
already taken by the provincial governments since the incident of $100 to $520 million (CAD); and ongoing costs to the provincial governments of $41 to 200 million (CAD) per year.
Needed upgrades to wastewater treatment plants to handle the expected increased flow of human wastes as populations grow and expand,
particularly during storm or “peak” events, could cost local communities around the Lakes billions of dollars.” For example, the U.S. EPA recently
proposed a new policy alternative to this expense by allowing wastewater treatment plants to partially treat or disinfect wastewater surges
during big storms. The process, called “blending,” would allow treatment plants to blend flows of sewage that is combined with storm water,
together with flows that have gone through full wastewater treatment. To meet water quality criteria for bacteria, the levels of chemical
disinfectants – typically chlorinated compounds – will likely be increased. In Swimming in Sewage, experts opposed to the policy expressed
concerns about the potential risks to humans from not only exposure to microbial contaminants, but also to higher concentrations of disinfectant
chemical by-products that pose a known cancer risk.49 Routine
disinfection is not effective against reducing viruses and protozoa in treated wastewater discharges, and opponents to the policy argue that
blending will release even greater loadings of these potentially pathogenic microorganisms.
The Walkerton Inquiry report notes that, not accounting for the costs directly related to illness and death, the Walkerton tragedy alone
cost more than $64.5 million (CAD). The incident demonstrates that even one system failure can impose enormous monetary as well as tragic
human costs. If the U.S. and Canada do not invest in their aging water infrastructure systems, the potential for more outbreaks of waterborne
diseases will increase. The investment costs to shore up the nations’ water treatment facilities are high, but the potential costs of not doing so
are even greater.