Water and wastewater treatment systems that malfunction and pollute water can be devastating, but many systems in the United States don’t receive all the funding they need to keep working properly.
Water and Wastewater Systems Need Funding to Work Properly
Water is one of the United States’ most vital resources, and when the country’s water is polluted, it is devastating, not only to the environment but also to human health and communities of all sizes. Even though local, state and federal governments make investments each year to keep the country’s water clean and safe, the nation’s water systems often do not receive the amount of funding needed to keep them working properly.
About every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases America’s Infrastructure Report Card to assess the condition and performance of the country’s infrastructure by assigning letter grades based on physical conditions and needed investments for improvement. The latest report was released in 2021. The grades given to water and wastewater systems since the report issued in 2003 are listed below.
Drinking Water Treatment Systems
|Grade in 2003: D
|Grade in 2009: D-
|Grade in 2017: D
|Grade in 2005: D-
|Grade in 2013: D
|Grade in 2021: C-
In the United States, there are over 148,000 public water systems – defined as a system that regularly supplies drinking water to at least 25 people or 15 service connections for at least 60 days a year.
Over 300 million people rely on public water systems to treat and deliver the just over 39 billion gallons of clean water withdrawn every day for homes, schools and businesses. Of all the systems, just 9 percent serve over 257 million people.
Another approximately 13 million households in the United States rely on private drinking water wells that supply water to an individual residence or a private water system that serves no more than 25 people and no more than 15 service connections at least 60 days of the year. The safety of that water is the responsibility of homeowners and is not regulated by the federal government.
Surface water sources – rivers, lakes or reservoirs – make up the majority of public water system withdrawals at 61 percent (a drop from 80 percent in 2017); the remaining 39 percent come from groundwater aquifers.
Before water gets from the system to its customers, it is treated to remove chemicals, particulates (e.g., soot and silt) and bacteria. Then clean, potable water is transported throughout a network of pipes that measures 2.2 million miles nationwide for activities like drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing, lawn watering and so forth.
In its analysis, the ASCE found that the country’s drinking water systems deliver consistently high quality water and found that 15 percent fewer systems experienced health-based violations in 2021 than in 2017.
The slight grade improvement from a “D” to a “C-” was due to several factors, including expanded federal financing programs, water utility rate increases that were earmarked for network improvements, planned pipe replacements and an increase in asset management programs that prioritized capital and operations/maintenance investments. In addition, many water utilities are in the process of developing and updating risk assessments and emergency response plans as well as deploying new technologies, all of which increase resilience.
Nevertheless, water systems struggle with legacy contaminants like lead and copper and nonpoint source pollution like nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff from farms and leaking septic systems (which can also lead to harmful algal blooms in waterways). In addition, emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals, personal care products and endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A (BPS) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are increasingly problematic.
Perhaps one of the most egregious and prominent water contamination cases happened in Flint, Michigan.
When the city changed its water source from Lake Huron to cheaper water from the Flint River, the new corrosive water source brought foul smelling, discolored and lead-laden water to city residents. The contamination affected mostly low-income and black residents who were left to cook, drink and bathe in it for more than two years.
The crisis forced the city to replace its piping system and return to the original water source. In addition, a judge recently awarded a $626 million settlement to people affected by the contaminated water. The case served as a watershed moment for exposing the often dire consequences of actions taken based on lack of funding and poor decision making.
Unfortunately, water contamination issues abound throughout the country. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been analyzing testing records from water utilities from all 50 states since 2013 and has assembled a database of 31 million records. In their analysis, EWG found dozens of contaminants all across the US.
In addition, an assessment of national trends in drinking water quality, published in 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences found that “Ensuring safe water supply for communities across the United States is a growing challenge in the face of aging infrastructure, impaired source water, and strained community finances.”
The assessment found that water quality violation hot spots tended to cluster in the Southwestern part of the country, and rural areas, in particular. The analysis found repeat violations, which would indicate that systems are constantly struggling with the same issues.
The assessment also found that systems with “purchased” water sources and private systems tended to be in compliance more than public sources. For example, the authors found that water systems that use purchased water from other water systems tended to have fewer violations, which might indicate that wholesale water providers are better able to achieve regulatory compliance.
In addition, privately owned water systems had fewer violations than publicly owned systems, which could be because private systems often have more resources available to them (especially at larger scales) as well as a higher likelihood of lawsuits or government takeover in the face of delivery of poor quality water.
In essence, safe, healthy drinking water takes funding and resources that many (especially public) communities either don’t have access to or don’t prioritize.
Investments in Drinking Water Infrastructure
Improving the nation’s drinking water infrastructure to ensure quality and maintain supply won’t come cheaply. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that it will take $1 trillion to restore existing service and expand new service to meet the needs of a growing population through 2035. The 2018 EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment indicates a more modest amount at only $476.2 billion over the next 20 years.
Unfortunately, federal funding for drinking water infrastructure is falling far short of needs. For example, the Fiscal Year 2021 final allotments from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund totaled only $1.6 billion.
As a result of chronic underfunding, much of the country’s aging drinking water infrastructure either no longer works properly or is in dire need of upgrades, hence the “C-” grade from the ASCE. The problems are exacerbated by strain from a growing population, continued development and the variability of water supplies in terms of both quantity and quality, which are influenced by climate change.
In addition to contamination and supply issues at treatment systems, another glaring result of under-funding water infrastructure is regular, and often major water main breaks.
According to the EPA, in the United States there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year that waste trillions of gallons of potable water and billions of dollars. These main breaks can affect millions of people, cause loss of service and result in non-potable water and “boil water” orders.
A report from The Value of Water Campaign entitled, “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure” assessed how investments in the nation’s water infrastructure can affect economic growth and employment. The report found that closing the gap between infrastructure needs and investment creates jobs and strengthens the economy by generating over $220 billion in economic activity. The report projected that closing the drinking water funding gap will save businesses $94 billion in annual sales and save 505,000 jobs over the next 10 years.
Wastewater Treatment Systems
|Grade in 2003: D
|Grade in 2009: D-
|Grade in 2017: D+
|Grade in 2005: D-
|Grade in 2013: D
|Grade in 2021: D+
After it is used for showering, washing the dishes, etc., water typically goes down a drain where it either enters a septic system or goes into a sewage system that takes it to a wastewater treatment plant.
Across the US, approximately 20 percent of households use individual or small, clustered septic systems to handle their wastewater. A septic system is essentially a small underground treatment system that includes a tank that “digests” organic matter and separates solids and floatable matter (like oil and grease) from the wastewater. The liquid then flows into a drainfield (a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field), where it is slowly released into the surrounding soil.
When residential septic systems fail or are not properly maintained, they become a major factor in water quality problems, such as harmful algal blooms caused by nutrient pollution (too much nitrogen and phosphorus). The impacts of malfunctioning systems vary by watershed and even sub-watershed — there is no federal agency that has oversight of septic systems and they aren’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, although local and state agencies often establish management rules.
The cost to connect a home to a sewage system (if that is even an option) can be steep and consists of the connection fee to the sewer main as well as plumbing work to complete the job. Costs run in the thousands to the tens of thousands of dollars, so for many, it’s not feasible.
The remaining 80 percent of households, as well as most schools and businesses, rely on sewage and wastewater treatment systems, which are overseen by a utility or public works department. Sewage systems collect wastewater sent down a drain after use to a wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater is piped to treatment plants through over 800,000 miles of public sewers and 500,000 miles of private sewers, and in some locations, are combined with stormwater drains.
Wastewater plants treat the water to federal drinking water quality standards before releasing it into receiving waterways. The nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants are a critical part of protecting public health and the environment.
Treatment plant upgrades and stringent regulations have significantly improved water quality in the US since 1972, when the Clean Water Act went into effect. Even still, the EPA and states have identified tens of thousands of water bodies1 in the US that are listed as threatened or impaired, which means they don’t meet water quality standards.
In the EPA’s National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress, states reported that:
- 46 percent of river and stream miles are in poor biological condition (National Rivers and Streams Assessment, 2008-09).
- 21 percent of the nation’s lakes are hypereutrophic (i.e., contain the highest levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, algae and plants) (National Lakes Assessment, 2012).
- 18 percent of the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes waters are in poor biological condition and 14 percent are rated poor based on a water quality index (National Coastal Condition Assessment, 2010).
While the causes of impairment are varied, municipal sewage discharges were identified as a major source of contamination. Releases of raw sewage from sewer and septic systems cause aquatic impairment, property damage and disease.
The EPA distinguishes sanitary sewer systems that carry only wastewater from those that also carry stormwater. Both types of systems can leak untreated wastewater into public waterways especially when inundated with too much stormwater.
There are at least 23,000 to 75,000 raw municipal sewage leaks from sanitary sewer systems each year. These are called Sanitary Sewer Overflows, or SSOs. Line breaks resulting from lack of maintenance are the most common cause; others include blockages (from grease, toilet wipes and other things that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet), defects that allow stormwater and groundwater to overload the system, power failures, improper sewer design and vandalism.
Sewer systems that also capture stormwater are known as combined sewer systems (CSS). Combined systems are found in 860 communities around the country but are concentrated in the northeast and Great Lakes region of the US, primarily in older cities.
Combined systems often get overloaded following heavy rain and snowmelt events, resulting in overflows that can cause the release of untreated human and industrial waste, toxic substances, debris, and other pollutants directly to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies. These are called Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, and the amount of rainfall required to create them varies, depending upon a wastewater treatment plant’s capacity. The EPA estimates that over 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater are released in CSOs every year.
1Prior to 2016, this data was presented on the EPA’s website in aggregate; it is now presented at the state level.
Investments in Wastewater Infrastructure
The ASCE report acknowledges that the wastewater sector has made progress by addressing “current and future needs through resilience related planning and innovations that produce profitable byproducts or cost savings from wastewater treatment.”
Nevertheless, most of the nations’ wastewater treatment systems are functioning at or near their design capacities, and many have reached the end of their lifespan. In addition, aging sewage systems that cause SSOs and heavy rain events that lead to CSOs cause raw sewage releases that have led to significant waterway impairment. These factors, combined with chronic federal underfunding, have led to the continued grade of D-.
An analysis by the Value of Water Campaign using Congressional Research Service data found that the federal government’s share of capital investment in water infrastructure (which here includes wastewater infrastructure) fell from 63 percent in 1977 to 9 percent in 2014. This equates to a drop from $76 per person in 1977 to $11 per person in 2014.
In fact, according to the US Conference of Mayors2, 95 to 98 percent of water and wastewater investments happen at the local – not federal – level, and in 2017, local governments invested a record $125.5 billion.
In recent years, the federal government has supplied some funding to states through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. From Fiscal Year 2016 through Fiscal Year 2021, federal financial assistance from the fund totaled just over $9.4 billion; however, state agency requests for funding totaled almost $56 billion.
The ASCE estimated that if the water and wastewater sectors continue along the same path of underfunding capital improvements and operations and maintenance, the funding gap will grow to $434 billion by 2039.
Ultimately, the quality of the nation’s water is directly linked to the quality of people’s lives. Governments at all levels reap multiple benefits through fully funded water and wastewater infrastructure.
The country is facing multi-pronged challenges: a growing population; an increased need for water and wastewater services; and increasing climatic threats to water security. Shrinking infrastructure budgets threaten the very resilience that will be necessary to overcome these challenges, but there is some hope.
An infrastructure bill passed in 2021 promises $55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure, including $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $10 billion to address polyfluoroalkyl substances (also known as PFAS). These groundwater contaminating chemicals are used in Teflon, firefighting foam, water-repellent clothing and many other items. The bill doesn’t close the gap, but it is encouraging to see the federal government prioritizing water and wastewater in its budgeting.
By supporting clean water initiatives and similar measures that improve water and wastewater treatment systems, everyone can have a hand in ensuring clean, safe water for themselves, their families and their communities.
2For a detailed discussion of local spending on water and wastewater infrastructure, check out Local Government Investment in Water and Sewer, 2000-2015, from the US Conference of Mayors.