The United States has an infrastructure problem. We have crumbling roads and railways, neglected public transit, and ports and airports in dire need of upgrades, not to mention the critical repairs needed for water and wastewater systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s drinking water system a C- on its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. Wastewater systems scored even worse with a D+.

According to ASCE, there are 2.2 million miles of underground pipes in the U.S. that deliver safe water to millions of people; however, the system is aging and underfunded. A water main breaks an estimated every two minutes, and 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost each day — enough to fill 9,000 swimming pools. Additionally, ASCE reports the nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants are functioning at 81% of their design capacities on average, and 15% have already reached or exceeded it. Clearly, something has to be done.

President Joe Biden hopes to kill two birds with one stone with his American Jobs Plan by investing nearly $2 trillion over the next eight years in infrastructure and green energy, thus creating new jobs for those still unemployed as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden’s plan allocates $111 billion to replace all lead pipes and service lines still in operation, as well as upgrade drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems, tackle emerging contaminants and support clean water infrastructure in rural areas. The ambitious legislation is currently under review in Congress.

“Time and use have a residual impact on the infrastructure, and in some cases, a lack of priority on water infrastructure has caused difficult situations for municipalities and residents,” explains Tom Miller, Eastern regional manager — U.S. industrial for Franklin Electric and Pioneer Pump. “Municipalities have much to maintain spanning far beyond just water supply and wastewater. Balancing revenue with maintenance and replacements across visible infrastructure can leave a gap in upgrading or replacing aging systems. For this reason, equipment is sometimes run to failure, which then requires emergency repair or replacement. A growing population also contributes to infrastructure concerns as systems may have been designed decades ago and struggle to support current needs. Unfortunately, funding, budgeting and adequate time to implement updates can weigh into the decisions that lead to disrepair.”

Shawn Strausbaugh, senior director of PMG technical resources for ICC, notes that while industries like building, construction and architecture have advanced throughout the years, existing water infrastructure has not experienced the same evolutionary speed, which has led to the deterioration of many systems past their life expectancy. 

“Although states and local jurisdictions have done what they could to maintain these systems, oftentimes the materials that were previously used when constructing our water infrastructure are not readily available to be used when components need to be replaced,” he says. “For example, in older systems, we would typically see cast iron or even wood in very old systems, whereas modern materials now utilize ductile iron and C900 nonmetallic piping, along with other nonmetallic materials. Luckily, through advancements in our processes, installation methods have improved, and even trenchless replacement or relining methods have become a viable resource for replacement and are able to improve our overall water infrastructure systems.”

Strausbaugh agrees many of the current challenges our water infrastructure faces today can be linked by chronic underfunding for either overall system replacement or even minimum maintenance.

“This actually comes as no surprise since building departments in general have often experienced this,” he says. “Even beyond the impact on our water infrastructure, we’ve seen the severe impact underfunding has caused building departments most clearly during the pandemic. Limited funding is being compounded drastically by rising utility costs — both in terms of local jurisdictions and nationally in the U.S. 

“Additionally, the water infrastructure tends to be installed in close proximity to one another in urban areas under heavily traveled roadways, subsequently complicating replacement, upgrades and increasing cost of projects,” Strausbaugh adds. “As you can imagine, when utility companies are engaging in upgrades, maintenance and especially long-term projects, citizens may feel inconvenienced since roads will need to be closed and traffic redirected, causing delays.”

Carolina Venega-Martinez, PhD., strategy manager specially focused on water infrastructure for Autodesk, notes the U.S. water infrastructure assets include about 2.2 million miles of pipes, 800,000 miles of public sewer systems, 3.5 million miles of storm sewers, 270 million storm drains, and more than 16,000 water treatment plants. 

“In many cases, these systems were put into place more than 80 years ago, and only 1% to 5% are replaced each year,” she says. “Many of them have exceeded their capacity. Moreover, as population grows, more systems are needed to be installed to keep up the pace of the growing demand. There have been years even decades of these systems delivering service, but increasing demands, costs of regulatory compliance, a highly fragmented sector and almost stagnant funding has resulted in many utilities struggling to keep up the pace to maintain the system working properly and making the required upgrades to meet compliance.”

Venega-Martinez points to not one, but several challenges the sector faces in bringing these systems up-to-date.

“Aging of the systems without a proper maintenance and operations plan can accelerate deterioration of the systems; increasing demand is adding pressure to the systems accelerating the need to upgrade or replace systems where funding is not available, so the system’s capacities are max out,” she says. “Additionally, climate change adds pressures to systems that were not designed to tolerate those extreme changes; and finally, increasing pollution levels cause an increase in regulations that just add more to the costs of the operations, in many cases, pushing the need to sacrifice more frequent maintenance to comply with new regulations.” 

Dan Rademacher, Viega Trades Education Network (VTEN) program manager and former owner of Plumbing Code & Design Consulting, notes that while the infrastructure needs improvements, it has been getting better. 

“Local communities and water purveyors are doing the best they can with the resources they have in replacing old water mains with new water mains,” he says. “I don’t want to have a broad stroke and say all the infrastructure is failing. Local jurisdictions and water companies are doing a good job of updating, and being proactive in replacing what they need to replace. It just takes time, resources and money. If the infrastructure bill in the current administration passes, there was a large amount of money set aside for replacing lead water service lines into homes for all across the country. That's very encouraging.” 


Creating sustainable infrastructure

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), water and wastewater utilities are typically the largest consumers of energy in municipalities, often accounting for 30% to 40% of total energy consumed. Implementing energy efficiency measures at water sector systems can significantly reduce operating costs — if water and wastewater utilities could reduce energy use by just 10% using demand management and cost-effective investments in energy efficiency, it would save about $400 million annually, per the EPA. 

The EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Sustainability Policy promotes sustainable infrastructure with the objective of ensuring federal investments, policies and actions support water infrastructure in efficient and sustainable locations to aid existing communities, enhance economic competitiveness and promote affordable neighborhoods. The policy emphasizes the need to deliver projects that are cost-effective, resource efficient and consistent with community sustainability goals over their life cycles.

“Since water is a finite resource, in order to create a sustainable water infrastructure, we must focus first on conservation, and second on protecting the sources of water and limiting pollutants,” Strausbaugh says. “One way to achieve this is to leverage individual on-site water reuse systems and incentivize the use of this type of system. For example, in the renewable energy space, photovoltaic (PV) systems currently receive a tax credit, as well as other incentives, and can be seen serving residential and commercial buildings in increasing numbers. Therefore, when thinking about similar programs for on-site water reuse systems this could be a good model to follow. 

“As society looks to create sustainable and resilient communities, it is great to see more emphasis from the federal, state and local government to implement technology and procedures that will lead to greater water conservation,” he continues. “However, it is also important that we are studying the effects of these techniques, especially at the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) level. Although we may be conserving water, current wastewater treatment processes may need to be refined or other unintended consequences may ensue.”

Venega-Martinez notes leveraging digital solutions is key to creating sustainable water infrastructure.

“Infrastructure cannot be planned, designed, built and operated the same way we have done it for decades,” she says. “Not because it was wrong, but because our current conditions have change and sometimes it makes the design conditions unpredictable. The only way to overcome those challenges is through simulation and analysis, which digital tools can provide. Digital project delivery and asset management can definitely change the way we see infrastructure in the future.”

While Biden’s plan, if it passes, will bring $111 billion to the sector, and the EPA announced the availability of $2.7 billion to improve water infrastructure on March 22 (World Water Day), it is not enough, Venega-Martinez notes.

“The estimated current gap is $1.7 trillion,” she says. “The majority of systems are underground, and with decades of over-service, there is no knowledge whatsoever of what will be found; however, with the help of emerging technologies, the uncertainty can be reduced. The other reason is that while this amount can definitely help increase replacement rate of failing infrastructure, it is important to secure resources for a sustainable management of the assets, and in this way extend their life span maximizing the investment.”

Cybersecurity a growing concern

On Feb. 5, a Florida water treatment facility was victim of a cyberattack. The hacker attempted to increase the levels of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye to hazardous levels that could sicken residents and corrode pipes. The attack was ultimately unsuccessful, as the treatment plant operator was quickly able to fix the levels moments after the hack. However the incident represents a growing concern that U.S. infrastructure is vulnerable to cyberattacks.

“The Feb. 5 hacking incident on a Florida water utility is a jarring reminder that the threat of cyberattacks on critical water infrastructure is both real and serious,” notes American Water Works Association (AWWA) CEO David LaFrance in a news release. “We live in a world where cyber intrusions are increasingly common in our personal and professional lives. Given the essential nature of water service, it’s well known that water infrastructure — and water treatment plants of all sizes — are potential targets of people with bad intentions.”

Miller notes the event goes to show that cybersecurity is imperative in today’s climate, and a must to ensure the well-being of our communities.

“Water is an essential need and impacts all,” he says. “It too, stands at risk without adequate protection. Our water treatment and wastewater treatment plants need advanced security measures and virtual private networks that are not accessible from outside. We also need a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and municipalities to help develop stronger security protocols. It is necessary to train municipalities on potential threats and establish best practices for protecting the public.”

Rademacher has given numerous presentations on vulnerability of our water supply systems to cyberterrorism in partnership with IAPMO.

“Water systems are vulnerable to a range of threats, including physical disruption, contamination and cyberattack,” he says. “The vulnerable characteristics of water systems include their physical attributes, such as reservoirs, tanks and pump stations, and the distribution system itself may be vulnerable to sabotage or intentional contamination. In addition to physical attributes, a water utility’s SCADA could be vulnerable to cyberattack, for example, turning pumps on or off, filling or emptying tanks inappropriately or causing water hammer events. Cyberattacks could also affect the administrative side of the water system business or operation creating confusion by straining already-strained resources and possibly leading to denial of service for some or possibly leading to compromised water quality.”

Rademacher was able to visit the treatment facility in Arizona’s Maricopa county for some insider information into this topic.

“Maricopa county supplies water to almost 5 million people and has 30 monitoring stations called pump stations,” he explains. “They’re constantly monitoring the quality of water, and it’s very sophisticated — they know when anything changes in the water. If the water is out of compliance, if there is a toxin or anything not supposed to be there, they can isolate it between pump stations. That’s how they protect the public. But this one statistic really opened my eyes — they said 25 to 30 people dying in the first attack is considered acceptable losses. Then they said between 1,500 to 5,000 people getting sick is also acceptable. That’s why it’s a very interesting issue.

“One of the biggest things — and the Air Force did a study on this too about the terrorism of water systems on military bases — is fire service connections and backflow preventers are probably one of the easiest ways to introduce a chemical within the water system,” Rademacher continues. “So having a true backflow prevention program on city mains and in buildings as per model plumbing codes is incredibly important. That’s one way of containing a terrorism.”

Strausbaugh agrees having a safe water supply and protecting our source water is paramount.

“While these threats can come from many different sources including a simple loss of power for an extended time period due to weather events, cyberattacks are one of the harder ones to mitigate,” he says. “This is due to the fact that cyberattacks on the U.S. water infrastructure could come from anywhere in the world and would not require the perpetrator to even be within the country’s borders. For example, anyone with IT resources and nefarious intentions would be able to tamper with the water supply chain if the proper cybersecurity controls are not in place. This makes ongoing monitoring for cybersecurity threats critical. Even the best systems can fail if not consistently monitored and maintained.”

Venega-Martinez notes water is a vital resource not only for humanity, but for the economy as well. A cyberattack may disable to manipulate utility infrastructure potentially resulting in loss of service, contamination of treated water or even damage to the infrastructure itself.

“This problem has to be looked from multiple angles,” she explains. “One of the them is the barriers (physical and technological) that are put into place. The primary cause of vulnerability is related to the lack of access control in the systems, software vulnerability and even weakness in the communication channels. Therefore, starting by using secure firewalls and robust software in compliance with security requirements to prevent hackers to get in is key, but also, it is important to increase training and awareness of cyberattacks within the personnel in charge of the operations.”

According to Venega-Martinez, 55% of utilities worldwide are embracing technology at some extent and are willing to move data management to the cloud. And in order to prevent hacking incidents, utilities need a trusted partner to help them safely navigate the cloud from both a technical and training perspective.

“As the private industry has increased its cyber defenses and employees are getting trained on how to deal with cyber security situations, hackers have identified the local government agencies a the new class of victims, increasing to more than 15% of all cyberattacks in 2020,” she says. “Therefore, tactics and methods are evolving as agencies are paying more attention to it and gaining more awareness. Other ways to increase protection to the water sector can be improving operational practices from using secure CDEs (common data environments) to manage data and documents, eliminating sharing information and critical documentation via email or removable media such a flash drives; reinforcing IT systems and investing in the right solutions to increase cyber awareness; and training to distinguish legitimate actions from hacking attempts.”

According to the EPA, water utilities experience an attempted cyberattack on process control at least once per year, and 10% of incidents may bring significant consequences, Venega-Martinez explains.

“Cyber criminals are well aware of the lack of resources and high vulnerability that utilities face from emerging threats, so partnering with a trusted advisor to help them navigate those water and identify the right path of implementation of solutions to succeed is key, not only to manage current threats but also prevent any foreseeable actions that can threat the operation and safe operations of the assets,” she says.