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The state of Pennsylvania shows improvement, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to basic maintenance of its water infrastructure.
According to the latest quadrennial Report Card for America’s Infrastructure issued by The American Society of Civil Engineers, Pennsylvania will have to spend $29.3 billion over the next two decades just to take care of its water and sewerage systems.
The need to invest on such a large scale was the focus of testimony by Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Howard Neukrug at a federal oversight hearing on water infrastructure financing last week. Neukrug was speaking on behalf of Philadelphia and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies before the U.S. Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “Modernizing and replacing the country’s aging water infrastructure may be the single largest public works need that our nation faces,” Neukrug testified, adding that it will take a trillion dollars over the next 30 years “to improve resiliency in the face of more frequent and extreme weather events.”
Philadelphia, with one of the oldest water systems in the country, is at the crux of the matter. The city has roughly 3,150 miles of water pipe, covering 130 square miles. The planning, operating and maintaining of that longstanding system is the undertaking of the Philadelphia Water Department.
Since 1980, PWD has spent about $500 million to replace 20 percent of its water mains. That’s about $15 million a year that’s been channeled into a network of underground pipes that most people never see. And overhauling the entire system would cost much more.
“To replace all of our water mains you’re looking at $5 billion,” said Christopher Crockett, Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Environmental Science at the Water Department.
And Philadelphia, a struggling rustbelt city with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, is hardly in a position to pay that kind of bill.
Which is why, Crockett said, we so desperately need a national solution to the problem – something like a national infrastructure bank. It’s a proposal that President Obama endorsed during his State of the Union address earlier this year.
“[Citizens] have to engage in that conversation with people at the national level,” Crockett said. “The public can’t just take these things for granted and expect no water main breaks. That bill for replacing billions of infrastructure will come due. You can’t kick it down the road. And when that bill comes due it’s going to be on the ratepayers in those local communities.”
And that will “hurt the people who can’t pay the most, who are the people are living at the poverty level,” Crocket said. “Philadelphians need to value water the same way they value cable TV and cell phones, and invest in it.”
Despite a recent series of increases in water and sewer rates, Philadelphia’s rates still rank relatively low, Crockett said. That is largely due to very careful planning.
“We have the philosophy of the right project at the right time at the right cost,” Crockett said. “So we want to make sure if we spend Philadelphians’ money and we put in a pipe that we’re going to get the maximum life out of that asset and the best performance.”
PWD is a cost of service utility, meaning it doesn’t make a profit. Ratepayer’s water bills include a service charge and a usage charge, Crockett said, that cover virtually all of the department’s expenses. The department receives no federal money and is rarely awarded state funds. It received money under the PENNVEST Clean Water State Revolving Fund for two projects, “but that’s very unusual and that was due to the recession,” Crockett said.
PWD, like most city utilities, largely finances its capital projects through municipal bonds.
According to Neukgrug’s testimony, municipal bonds have financed more than $258 billion in water and sewer infrastructure projects across the nation in the past decade – which is “more than total municipal bond-based investment for roads and highways, public power projects or mass transit.”
And even that’s not enough.
In its 2013 report card, ASCE gave both the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure a grade of “D.” The report calls for a $3.6 trillion investment to salvage our nation’s near-failing infrastructure system by 2020.
The water industry as a whole, PWD Director of Field Operations Charles Zitomer said, is struggling with this, “not just us.”
“But we happen to have a whole lot of good information and new technologies to try to answer those very difficult questions.”