How Should Infrastructure Funding Be Prioritized?
By Kevin Westerling,
With the $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill finally passed following lengthy congressional negotiations, U.S. water and wastewater utilities are in line to get help for solving some longstanding issues, from crumbling pipes and outdated treatment plants to modernizing operations for efficiency and resiliency.
But what from the long list of needs should get the highest priority?
Water Online asked this question of visitors to our booth at this year's Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC), the first live industry event in some time for most exhibitors and attendees. The responses provided a window into broad national needs, local challenges, and more personal concerns driven by everyday tasks or job function.
Here's a sampling of answers, edited and condensed for clarity (listed alphabetically by company).
Doug Hatler, Chief Revenue Officer, 374Water:
I think water's not going to get as much as we all want it to, because roads, bridges, and other parts of infrastructure are going to get it as well — which, if you've been driving around any of the major cities, they've really come into quite a state of disrepair. But if you've also wandered around water plants and wastewater treatment plants, they're hanging on by a thread. They barely have the spare parts they need in some cases.
The priorities, I think, should be improving water quality and making sure that these plants are able to operate and move the industry forward.
The key thing is fixing the aging infrastructure. If we can do it in a way where we can bring in some of this newer technology to help address PFAS and some of these other issues, then I think we're spending money well.
Nathan C.W. Smith, General Manager, Aeration Industries International:
Certainly, water is a high priority. I was reading some CDC studies on the impacts of PFAS … and there's a reason so many people are focused on it — the health risks related to PFAS are downright frightening. I'd like to think the government is going to focus on that.
I grew up on the West Coast and I have memories of blue skies and days on lakes. Now, when I go home to visit my family in the summertime, the skies aren’t blue, they're smoky brown, and you can't breathe; and lakes that we used to go sail-boating on are so empty that you can't go out on a sailboat anymore.
All of that is a function of the drought situation that the U.S. West and the U.S. Southwest, in particular, is facing. Being efficient with water is more important and more critical than ever. I would like to think that a lot of this infrastructure funding will go to support that, because I don't know what will happen to the entire West Coast economy without sufficient water.
Piero Suman, Director of Product Marketing and Industrial Sales, Amiad Water Systems:
I would say any federal funding that affects the water industry will be a booster that will positively impact us and any other operator. Regardless of the overall global economy and the overall situation in the market, investing in water is an investment for the future.
We are deeply involved in anything that is related to water treatment, from potable water down to wastewater, so any funding that goes toward infrastructure, in that sense, will definitely benefit us — but also the country and the overall population.
Gregory Brock, VP and General Manager, Anue Water Technologies:
In my opinion, it would be collection lines — miles and miles of road that has collection lines underneath them. There's been decades of corrosion due to hydrogen sulfide gas, generating acid that is corroding lift stations, ductile systems, or concrete systems that are continuing to corrode. So, in my opinion, they should get the highest priority.
Eric Dorgelo, Chief Technology Officer, Aquatic Informatics:
We find, in many cases, that [potential customers] really want to use our systems, but they often say they don't have the budget to use them. They're chronically underfunded. I believe this will free up some capital for them to proceed with a lot of the projects that they really need. They're still on paper, and digitizing can really improve their efficiencies and help them run a more optimal operation in general.
Dennis Calvert, President and CEO, BioLargo, Inc.:
In terms of priority, quality drinking water for human safety always has to be at the top of the list.
And, for our purposes, PFAS has been linked to adverse health effects — cancer and birth defects — and the concentration of it is really dangerous. We see that that as something that demands immediate attention. We have 38 years of accumulation that has gone on all over the world. They're measuring PFAS in the polar ice caps, in your body, your food, and your cosmetics. I always tell everyone, if you watch the movie Dark Waters, it's going to tick you off pretty good.
The idea that these compounds were so loosely sold and distributed for such an extraordinarily long period of time — designed to resist nature's breakdown — you think about that and it just makes such common sense that a little bit every day for the rest of your life might actually be a problem.
Chris Milligan, President and CEO, BlueInGreen; President, ChartWater:
In terms of where the money goes, my personal preference is to focus on the things that are true, immediate needs right now — collapsing pipes, for example.
There are a lot of small- and medium-sized communities that are really struggling right now to figure out how they're going to just keep their systems operating, and less likely being worried about how they're going to address some of these emerging contaminant concerns and other things like that.
Patrick Murphy, Director of Engineering, Blue-White Industries:
Being in the water, I’d say water should get priority, and I wish there was more in the water infrastructure portion of it. I also think that there should be more for cybersecurity. There is a portion dedicated to it, but I don't think it's enough.
Eva Steinle-Darling, Water Reuse Practice Director, Carollo Engineers:
From a reuse perspective, I can’t tell you how many places I've gone in and they're like, “Yeah, we want to do water reuse. We want to do potable reuse.” It's exciting. It's the new water supply frontier. It's the right thing to do.
And then we come in and do a condition assessment of their wastewater plant, and they have to spend the entire budget that they set aside for the reuse project just to get their existing infrastructure up to speed, which sets them back in their plans to be more proactive and innovative.
So, I would say we need to put a good chunk of that money into just getting our existing infrastructure, whether that's linear or treatment, up to a basic standard so that we can build on them to do the more innovative projects that I would love to be doing.
Matthias Altendorf, CEO, Endress+Hauser:
At the end of the day, the infrastructure for water needs to be in good shape because population is growing and health demand is rising. At the same time, in some parts of the country we have a lot of water, and in some parts we don’t have enough water.
If we do this smart, we can make sure that the water security goes for centuries to come. Therefore, you have to have continuous investment.
Besides that, today’s modern technology would allow you to predict pandemics from [monitoring] the wastewater. We can tell you two, three weeks in advance if something will come in the public space based on the analytics of the wastewater. That makes a lot of sense to invest in the water with the infrastructure bill, even though it might not be as big as originally thought.
John Hepfinger, President, GeoTree Solutions:
Obviously, I would say sewer and water ought to get the highest funding. But the reality is those are the things that people don't see. They see the roads and bridges, so that's what gets picked. Water and sewer — those are the hidden things that people don't see but are really important.
In terms of the infrastructure bill, it's going to take several years. Even after it's signed to go, it's not a shovel-ready type of system. It's going to take a couple years to be implemented and start seeing the effects. But, it will give that needed psychological boost to the industry.
Whether you're doing buildings and bridges or sewers, water systems, and treatment plants — it will give a needed boost of confidence. That lets the municipalities know that there's funding behind them so that they can move forward. It's a piece of legislation that, while there is funding behind it, will also trigger subsequent funding within the state and local level.
Steve Roehrig, VP of Sales and Marketing, Hydra-Stop:
I'd love to see the highest priority be potable water, which is the main space that my company plays in and what we do in terms of keeping critical infrastructure in service during planned and emergency maintenance.
I think the infrastructure bill is going to continue to stimulate the market. Everybody has been busy through COVID, and hopefully the amount of projects will continue to flow through and those dollars will flow down and keep everybody working and continue to improve our infrastructure.
Susan Moisio, Global Water Director, Jacobs:
I think we need to make sure that we’re moving forward with the mitigation of climate change — that’s the highest priority.
Aging infrastructure is something that the ASCE report card showed that we are not doing well on, so that’s another component.
Resiliency and water in the West are also key components of the infrastructure bill. We're very happy to see that, at least in the draft bill, and hope it makes it through to the final bill.
Chris Curry, VP of Sales, JCM industries:
Well, the good thing about the federal funding is that it will be supported with local funds to stretch it farther, to cover more needs of the old infrastructure. That's something that is out-of-sight/out-of-mind for most people, with water and sewer lines being buried.
The priority list probably has to be set more at the local levels, in the smaller communities that are not able to afford the funding of the new projects without the federal government's help. That's going to continue to create jobs for everybody involved in the utility industry.
Michael McClurg, Chief Marketing Officer, Load Controls Incorporated:
We see the world from a motors perspective — all the motors that power the flow of water and the treatment of waste. We’re very focused on how the industry can adopt new solutions that are much more energy efficient?
We're looking at ways to make solutions easier to integrate in their existing environment, and solutions that give them better data about how much energy they're using.
We're optimistic that the additional money flowing into some of the infrastructure programs will be used for energy efficiency, making their networks much more capable and efficient.
Jim Lauria, VP of Sales and Marketing, Mazzei Injector Company:
I think infrastructure in terms of distribution systems is critical, and distribution encompasses a lot of things. We don't want to waste the water that we produce. It costs a lot to extract the water, treat the water, and then to let it leak out in water main breaks, that’s one issue.
The other issue is lead. The problem that you have — going back to Flint and Newark and other big cities — is that they've got lead service lines, and they're probably not even sure where they’re located. You'll have to track where the lead is, and you'll have to remove those and replace them. There are a lot of issues in the distribution system that need to be addressed.
Kenji Takeuchi, Senior VP of Water Management Solutions, Mueller Water Products:
We’re very focused on clean drinking water and believe in the importance of that access to clean drinking water to every person in the world. We’d like the spending to ensure the delivery of the water and keep it at the highest quality. That relates to the repairing of infrastructure and improving on non-revenue water, which at around 30 percent or so is unacceptable.
Our products will be part of the replacement. We'll be there to help repair the water flow controls and valves and hydrants. Our technology can help spend that money in the most effective way.
Jim Dartez, President, Reliant Water Technologies:
I would like to see more done in infrastructure in wastewater.
Every large city — it happened to me last night, here in Chicago, in a very populated outdoor restaurant area, there was an odor coming out of a sewer — and it happens all over. The reason is that people don't want to look at innovation and spend the money.
Well, why not let infrastructure money help them at least to bring collection system technologies up to par? I would just like to see a lot of infrastructure money put there.
Jens Nielsen, Regional Sales Manager, REXA, Inc.:
The highest priority should be the communities that are already lagging behind in meeting their current permit restrictions, before they get hit with tighter permit restrictions. Let's make sure they can achieve the permit restrictions they're already being held to.
Also, I live out on the West Coast and I cover the Western United States, and drought is a constant concern, so they are cross-connecting water distribution lines between districts. Communities are learning that, even though they have their own distribution systems and treatment plants, they have to share. Because the actual source — say it's the Colorado River or Lake Mead — you could have dozens or even hundreds of communities pulling from that source. By pooling their resources together, they're going to be able to better combat drought scenarios and they're able to assist each other when one community is receiving slightly more rainfall than the other. I think more cross connections and inter-agency cooperation is going to result from the infrastructure bill.
Adam Tank, Director of Software Solutions, Transcend Water:
In a perfect world, I'd want to see more of that go towards innovation and tech-enabled solutions instead of yesterday's technology tomorrow, which is pretty much how this entire industry operates. There's so much room to bring our maintenance programs and our capital projects up to snuff, if we would just allocate the funds appropriately.
There's probably not going to be enough money to solve everything, but if we could use the money that we do get more effectively, we could make it stretch a hell of a lot farther. For me, the way we do that is through tech; tech is the way forward.
And one of the biggest challenges that we have as an industry is that it is hardcore, built infrastructure. It's not ones and zeros floating somewhere. It's not an app you can download. It’s pipes and pumps and concrete buildings. Thinking about the system from a design standpoint from the very get-go — structurally, how things should be designed, the way they should operate, as-designed vs. as-built — is how the money can best be spent. Because if we think through it, if we spend a little more money up front to think through how it should be designed and future-proof the infrastructure, we're not only going to save money now when we construct it — because we're going to use less materials and more efficient materials and more efficient construction methods — but in the future, because we’ll lower maintenance costs and lower the total cost of operation. The dollar is just going to go a lot further.
Again, in a perfect world, you're bringing technology in at the earliest stages of these projects, doing more evaluation up front. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; that's where we need to be focused.
Mark Kustermans, Municipal Market Manager, Trojan Technologies:
Obviously, there's quite a bit going into the water industry. From what I understand, a lot of it is going to be accessible through state revolving funds, which is something that municipals are very familiar with — they know how to access that funding.
I think there’s an opportunity in the next couple years to really change the game there and actually make things work. There are constraints with current COVID and supply-chain challenges — getting those projects to be shovel-ready, getting them expedited, might be a challenge in the next couple of years; but I think everybody's willing to step in and push forward.
Joe Vesey, Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer, Xylem:
On the infrastructure bill, any time that many people can agree to invest in infrastructure it’s a big deal. It's good that we can agree to move forward, because there's a real need. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave most water assets a ‘D’ or ‘D-‘ relative to other infrastructure assets out there.
The challenge with water is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Most assets in water are buried assets, so you can't see how much they've really crumbled over the years. Whereas, when you're driving down the road or over a bridge, you can easily see it and therefore get attention to it and get dollars into it. So, I like the fact that there are some additional dollars coming into the system.
Going after needed areas around lead piping is a big deal. PFAS is a big deal.
Generally, energy efficiency and the application of digital technologies to drive efficiencies that really pay for themselves in a quick period of time … that’s great. Xylem will do its best to serve those needs, the same way we serve the entire market.
We're hopeful that it goes through, and I think a lot of communities can benefit from it. We hope to provide the technologies to enable those value equations to come to life, which is what the infrastructure bill is all about.
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