A $1 trillion problem under America's streets

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Replacing old water and sewer pipes and upgrading aging treatment plants around the country could cost $1 trillion over the next two decades, federal officials say.

Lawmakers are trying to get attention for the problem -- and a lot more money for upgrades.

``There are significant unmet needs that require the federal government's immediate attention,'' U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said Tuesday. ``The federal government is really the only entity that can help local communities make the necessary improvements.''

Voinovich introduced legislation to let the federal government provide more money for wastewater discharge pipes and treatment facilities.

Last year, Congress created a $1.5 billion, two-year grant program to help municipalities deal with part of the infrastructure problem -- combined systems that use the same conduits for sewage and rainwater.

Voinovich's bill would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to give states up to $3 billion a year to deal with other wastewater infrastructure improvements.

That may be just a drop in the bucket.

Ohio alone has a $4 billion backlog of unmet needs, Voinovich said.

A study commissioned by a coalition of sewer and water authorities, contractors, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and others estimated the overall cost of infrastructure needs at $1 trillion over 20 years. That includes improvements to wastewater pipes, storm sewer pipes, the lines that carry clean water from plants to homes and the plants themselves.

An EPA study reached a similar conclusion.

The agency forecasts that between 2010 and 2020, $1 trillion will have to be spent to operate, repair and upgrade water and sewer systems, retire existing debt on those systems and make essential new investments.

Steve Allbee, author of that forecast, anticipates a gap of $23 billion a year over the next 20 years between what's spent on drinking water and wastewater systems and what's really needed.

He estimated that if customers alone pay the cost, their bills would increase an average of 6 percent every year for the next 20 years. That would pose a particular hardship for cities that have both old pipes and declining population, meaning fewer taxpayers to share the burden.

``It's more dramatic in the Rust Belt because of the financing issue and because of the aging of the systems,'' Allbee said.

Many of the nation's wastewater treatment plants were built at roughly the same time -- in the 1970s and early 1980s -- with roughly a 30- to 40-year life span, he said.

Those plants connect to underground pipes whose 50- to 75-year average life spans are ending or, in the oldest cities, to cast iron or brick pipes laid about 100 years ago. They have a life span of 100 or 125 years.

When those oldest pipes were designed, office buildings were shorter, water pressure was lower and roads carried lighter loads.

Replacing pipes has been difficult for municipal systems that work hard just to service new customers and comply with new regulations covering radon, arsenic, radionuclides, microbes and more.

``In the last 30 years, the nature of the investment was to serve more and more people and to provide higher and higher treatment levels to make sure that the public health and environmental objectives were met,'' Allbee said.

``If the present situation persists, the financial solvency of many drinking and wastewater systems will be in doubt,'' he said.

Mansfield, Ohio, a city of about 51,000, has been negotiating with its state government over what could be as much as $30 million worth of improvements to its sewer system to comply with federal regulations.

City Engineer Jim DeSanto said the cost has to be passed on to the 19,000 homes and businesses that use Mansfield's sewer system.

``Our city is in desperate need of assistance from the federal government'' to meet requirements, Mayor Lydia Reid said.