The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has released their state of the infrastructure report for 2014 (pdf), collecting responses from 1,739 AWWA members across the US and Canada. This report gives an insight into the industry without political or corporate interference ((although it is a self selecting group that chooses to participate, there appears to be little rationale or evidence for biases in the data)).

For 2014, the top five water industry issues identified for 2014 are:
  1. State of water and sewer infrastructure
  2. Long-term water supply availability
  3. Financing for capital improvements
  4. Public understanding of the value of water resources
  5. Public understanding of the value of water systems and services
The list of top 15 issues compared between 2013 and 2014 is given in Table 9 on page 12 of the report, the 2014 data is shown below.
AWWA - Top 15 Issues. Table 9, SotWIR 2014
AWWA – Top 15 Issues. Table 9, SotWIR 2014

Interestingly, a number of the top 15 issues relate to asset management and long term solutions (( Some of the issues we identify as relating to asset management are 1, 3, 5, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15 in Table 9 of the report)). The report discusses these challenges:

Many of the challenges highlighted in this report have engaged water professionals for years, yet there is a growing urgency to address our persistent infrastructure, water resource, and communication issues. To do so, the water industry must work collectively to develop sound and sustainable solutions and to then disseminate and implement them at the local and regional levels where water-related decisions are mostly made. Public input and proactive community involvement are essential to the success of this process.

Growing Urgency

Corroded Steel Watermain
Corroded steel watermains exist across our utility networks

AWWA states that there is a growing urgency to address our persistent infrastructure, water resource, and communication issues. The industry collectively has had little success in bringing these issues to the greater public; the issues vary so widely across the continent and from community to community – from groundwater resource availability to regulatory compliance, each utility has it’s own unique challenges and needs to communicate the issues directly to their communities. AWWA’s role, (and they have done a great job with this), is building awareness within the industry, and empowering utilities with training and information to support their needs.

And given the cost of these needs, as an industry, we need to ensure our communications are targeted and effective:

Addressing water and sewer infrastructure needs, the most important water industry issue, could easily top $2 trillion over the next 25 years in the United States.

Sustainable Solutions

The engineering profession and the water industry have been criticized for not moving quickly with new technology – we’re a conservative bunch when it comes to public health and safety, and the track record is remarkably good over the last couple of decades in the western world.

But the profession must accept new realities of energy and resource constraints as well as best practices for developing and running projects such as the Envision Rating System. Finding ways to “do the right project and do the project right” are becoming the greater challenges within the industry, ensuring works and projects are completed within a sustainability framework, where the lifecycle costs of the projects are minimized while the benefits are maximized.

Public Input and Community Involvement

A component of good project management is Stakeholder Engagement and Stakeholder Management ((note that these practices are rewarded in the Envision Rating System.)) All utilities need to do a better job of communicating the projects and challenges they face, particularly relating to infrastructure and water sources. I sense that the industry has been reluctant to be too open in the past as unwanted and seemingly unhelpful criticisms are often the result of attempted transparency. Unfortunately this is part of stakeholder management; ensuring that expectations and input opportunities are managed in a respectful way for all parties involved. This demand shifts the industry away from purely technical science and engineering solutions to collaborative, community based forums. For many, this is a whole new skill set that must be acquired and mastered.

An example of the communication problem the industry faces, is this statement from the report:

Only one percent of 2014 SOTWI respondents indicated that the water industry was fully prepared to address issues related to talent attraction and retention in the next five years while 15 percent thought the industry not at all prepared and 35 percent thought it was only slightly prepared.

To solve this problem, the industry needs to find new ways to distribute this information through recruitment channels and in high schools. Promotional materials (many good examples have been commissioned by AWWA) need to be distributed by the utilities in a ground roots effort at driving industry recruitment.But at this stage, past efforts seem to be having little effect on the attraction and retention of talent.

 What Does it Mean for Your Community?

The report paints a picture of the state of the water industry as a whole, but what does it mean for your community? Here are some predictions of how things will change in the next ten years in most communities:

  1. Water rates will likely increase significantly to cover the increased demand for quality water and replacing aging assets
  2. Watermain and equipment failure will become more regular occurrences
  3. Water conservation efforts will be required to ensure sustainable source use
  4. Regulatory standards will increase, including increased treatment and testing requirements
  5. Training requirements for treatment and distribution staff will increase, making recruitment and retention even harder.

Figure 11 in the report shows the responses for the question of whether utilities can cover the full cost of running their systems. The scary thing is that any answer other than “Fully Able” should concern us, but we (the industry) have become accustomed to utilities not being fully funded, and tacitly accept the consequences without adequately explaining these to our communities.

Can utilities cover the cost of providing service? - Figure 11 SotWIR 2014
Can utilities cover the cost of providing service? – Figure 11 SotWIR 2014

Future Concerns

On a final note, Table 13 shows the current perspectives on future regulatory concerns. Somewhat of a crystal ball exercise, but scanning down the list, it is interesting to see what threats some in the water industry do not feel are adequately protected through regulation.

Future Regulatory Concerns Rated - Table 31 SotWIR 2014
Future Regulatory Concerns Rated – Table 31 SotWIR 2014

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the state of the water industry from your perspective, whatever that might be. One final, inspiring thought from the report:

Water systems protect public health by delivering safe drinking water, collecting and treating wastewater to protect our waterways and drinking water supplies, and providing fire protection for our homes, businesses, schools, churches, stores, stadiums; in short, water touches us everywhere our lives take us. That is the reach and responsibility of our industry, and if utilities can continue to meet their community obligations of safeguarding public health and ensuring adequate and reliable supplies to customers and the environment, then we carry on the legacy of the water industry professionals who came before us and provide useful guidance for those who follow.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

One reply on “AWWA’s 2014 State of the Water Industry”

  1. Always an interesting read. The trouble with infrastructure such as this, is that it isn’t very sexy. We all take it for granted that we’ll have fresh water and not have to worry about sewage contaminating our streets and drinking water. Not until, that is, there is a major problem.

    Until then, politicians will ignore the problem … no one has ever been elected for solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

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