Surviving An Exceptional Funding Drought

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | February 2012, Vol. 67 No. 2

As last summer’s drought conditions wore on, I learned that there is a condition even worse than “extreme.” There is an “exceptional” drought category, which essentially means “pending devastation if you don’t get rain fast.” The impact of this drought, when finally broken, will be felt for years.

As I was sifting through the many comments and mounds of data from Underground Construction’s industry-exclusive Municipal Sewer and Water Survey, the parallel became obvious and unmistakable. Our nation’s prolonged Great Recession had pushed the underground sewer/water infrastructure into the “exceptional” crisis mode.

A large number of municipalities, counties and other public works agencies have been facing unprecedented cash flow issues the past several years. That has precipitated an alarming slowdown of desperately needed maintenance and rehabilitation of our vital infrastructure.

Even before the Great Recession hit, cities and counties were struggling to find the funds necessary just to maintain their sewer/water piping systems, let alone address the decaying, failing pipes populating much of those systems. As we continue to experience budget cuts and general lack of available funds, prospects of relief from government funding programs such as the Clean Water Act or State Revolving Loan funds are essentially nonexistent. That leaves local governments struggling to find funding sources through user fee increases and/or other enhanced revenue streams. However, this can make elected officials very unpopular with their constituents, thus their reluctance to act – even when absolutely necessary.

When money is tight, sewer/water infrastructure is last in line and often not funded. It seems like sewer/water only gets attention when there is an emergency such as a major failure of a line, or the EPA comes calling. But that mindset is dangerous on two levels. First of all, leaking water pipes cost money – far more than people realize. That water is treated and transported at a price and when much of that product is lost before delivery, more water has to be acquired, treated and transported to make up for the loss at an additional expense. It becomes a relentless cycle of expensive waste. Further, failing sewer pipes and leaking water lines become a major health issue and the potential for disease increases exponentially.