Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Crumbling Pipes and Failed Hydrants: Water Infrastructure

Last month businesses in Carterville, IL suffered extensive fire damage when a water hydrant failed in the midst of firefighting efforts. City water managers explained that the system was old and no longer functioning well. Aging infrastructure is a problem we think about a lot here at IWRC, partly because our news feeds have been filled with stories of water main failures in Illinois, like here, here, and here, to name only a few.   

It turns out that everyone else is thinking about crumbling infrastructure, too. Not only did members of the water industry testify before Congress, just last week, but their suggestions on how to address urgent water structure needs were also recently echoed by a new Government Accountability Office report.

To top things off, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued their 2013 Infrastructure report card yesterday, assigning a D+ as the overall grade for American structures. This is a marginal improvement from the last reports, issued in 2009, when the overall score was a D-. 2013 grades for water-related infrastructure were all low, with Dams receiving a D, a grade shared by Drinking Water and Wastewater. Levees received a D-, as did Inland Waterways. Bridges were a brighter spot on the card, earning a C+.   

In Illinois specifically, infrastructure received a grade of D+, while necessary upgrades to drinking water over the next twenty years were estimated to require $15 billon. Wastewater needs were estimated at $17.5 billion. This is an increase from the 2009 report, where these numbers were estimated at  $13.5 billion and $13.41 billion, respectively. Likewise, high hazard dams in the state (those which could potentially cause human harm and property loss if they failed) rose from 187 to 201.   

In the midst of this doom and gloom, however, Illinois is making some progress. This past fall Gov. Quinn established the Clean Water Initiative, which makes $1 billion in water project funding available to Illinois communities through low interest loans. It is funded through the equity of existing State Revolving Fund loans, Federal grants, and Federal stimulus funds. Thus far, projects in Perkin, IL and Chicago have received loans to address both drinking water and wastewater. Villages like Kenilworth, however, are pursuing another avenue of funding and have asked residents to vote on a referendum that would raise property taxes to address aging infrastructure causing flooding basements and insufficient water flow at fire hydrants.