Rebuilding Our Aging Water Systems with Green Infrastructure

Photo from New York Times, by Fenke de Jong
Author: Travis Leipzig

With much of the United States’ existing water and sewer systems out-of-date and quickly deteriorating against the backdrop of limited and diminishing freshwater supplies, Bob Herbert describes in a recent New York Time’s editorial how the country is in serious need for drastic water infrastructure improvements. While Herbert correctly identifies the problem, he fails to mention how the most cost effective, environmentally conscious, climate resilient and economically beneficial strategies to repair our dilapidated systems are the implementation of green infrastructure practices.

In a recent NY Times article “The Corrosion of
Op Ed columnist Bob Herbert beautifully points out the problem of our nation’s immense need for an improved water infrastructure.

If you had a leak in your roof or in the kitchen or basement, you’d probably think it a good idea to have it taken care of before matters got worse, and more expensive.

If only we had the same attitude when it comes to the vast and intricately linked water systems in the United States. Most of us take clean and readily available water for granted. But the truth is that the nation’s water systems are in sorry shape — deteriorating even as the population grows and demand increases.

Indeed, if problems in a home are overlooked for too long a period, the accruing damage will inevitably depreciate the entire value of the property. This concept certainly holds true in the face of outdated and decaying water infrastructure since this decay renders drinking water supplies and quality less reliable while wasting a scarce resource. Overlooking such problems, for decades in some cases, we take our access to fresh water entirely for granted.

This outdated infrastructure is a huge problem, one that is well over due for evaluation and action. According to the USGS, estimated water loss in US water and sewer systems is approximately 6 billion gallons of water per day. At this rate, we lose more than enough water to supply the 10 largest cities in the nation. Based on national averages, this water loss likely results in approximately 1.5 billion Kilo Watt hours of wasted electricity, attributable to roughly 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. If left un-checked for too long, the costs associated with environmental damage and wasted energy could become much worse than they already are.


Upgrading water infrastructure will bring about countless positive results, in addition to preserving our nations diminishing water supply and limiting wasted energy and carbon emissions. One such additional benefit to be expected is the ever-so-necessary stimulation of long-term economic growth. Herbert expands on this concept:

Improving water systems — and infrastructure generally, if properly done — would go a long way toward improving the nation’s dismal economic outlook. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, every dollar invested in water and sewer improvements has the potential to increase the long-term gross domestic product by more than six dollars. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created if the nation were serious about repairing and upgrading water mains, crumbling pipes, water treatment plants, dams, levees and so on.

It is clear that improving water infrastructure can bring about hugely beneficial water, energy and economic outcomes. So, what is holding us back from taking action and making the appropriate and necessary changes? For one, there is a lack of crucial federal funding available to make even the slightest improvements in the situation.

As evidence for a lack of federal funding for the improvement of our local water systems, New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, Cas Holloway, responded to Herbert’s article in a letter to the editor in which he wrote:

Bob Herbert’s analogy of fixing a leak before it gets worse and more expensive is right on target. In New York City, we are doing just that — and on a large scale.
For instance, the city has two water tunnels that are both more than 70 years old. Construction on a third tunnel began in 1970, but city funding ebbed and flowed with the economic and political times. But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has invested more money in the tunnel than the previous five mayors combined — and it is now nearing completion.

Despite a strained budget, New York continues making these investments essentially on its own. For example, between 2002 and 2009, only $41 million of the $6.3 billion that the city invested in protecting harbor water quality came from federal grants — a tiny 0.65 percent.

That trend has to be reversed if we are serious about fixing the problem. Protecting our water supplies and cleaning our environment are national priorities, so it is critical that the federal government restore its commitment as a funding partner.

In another response letter to Herbert’s article, David LaFrance, the Executive Director of American Water Works Association, acknowledges the lack of water infrastructure funding and proposes what I think is a brilliant financial solution. As LaFrance wrote:

While the problem is well documented, it’s time to move toward viable solutions. The American Water Works Association conducted a study of water infrastructure finance solutions and strongly recommends the creation of a federal water infrastructure bank.

The bank would provide low-cost loans to communities with critical water infrastructure needs. These loans would dramatically reduce the cost of repairs for cities and consumers, encourage immediate action on water projects and even spur job creation.

A federal water infrastructure bank is an excellent idea, one which few people have probably considered a possibility. At the end of the day, whichever course of financial resolution is taken to fund water system improvements, and it is clear that the funding must be made available, we must be sure that proper investments decisions are made that will most sufficiently tackle the infrastructural predicament.

The best solutions to these problems to date, are green infrastructure and low impact development techniques such as green roofs, rainwater harvesting, bioretention areas (or rain gardens and bioswales), permeable (or porous) pavement, tree planting, and riparian buffer zones. Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers, points out some of the benefits from green infrastructure and low impact development in another letter to the editor of Herbert’s article. Wodder states:

Not only do we need to invest more in our nation’s outdated infrastructure, but we also need to invest smarter. Simply rebuilding the dams, levees and pipes of the 19th century won’t be enough to keep up with the demands that a growing population and climate change are placing on our water systems.

Instead, we need to invest in 21st-century green infrastructure solutions, like wetland restoration and green roofs, that replicate natural functions and are cheaper, more flexible and more resilient than traditional approaches.

Communities nationwide are realizing that these innovative green infrastructure solutions come with multiple benefits. On Staten Island, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection integrated restored wetlands into its stormwater management program. The project has improved water quality, reduced flood damage, decreased threats to public health and revitalized wildlife habitat.

New York City’s new Green Infrastructure Plan is designed to save $2.4 billion over 20 years as part of a sustainable strategy for clean water.

The Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act, introduced in the House and the Senate, would help ensure that communities nationwide can implement projects like this. Congress should act swiftly to pass the bill.

But this is not the end of the story. The replacement of outdated water systems with green infrastructure and low impact development can bring about significant energy and water savings. The installation of green roofs and planting trees and shrubs within cities can allow for additional natural carbon sequestration as well as reduce the urban-heat-island effect, drastically lowering electricity costs associated with cooling buildings. Replacing traditional side-walks and impervious spaces with bioswales and rain gardens facilitates the natural replenishment of aquifers, while reducing storm-water overflows which in turn limits contaminants entering into waterways and reduces electricity costs associated with pumping and treating waste and stormwater. By harvesting rain water and reusing grey water, we can generate ‘new’ low cost water supplies. In addition, from all of the electricity savings made possible through a decreased need to pump and treat water as well as cool buildings, significant amounts of water will be conserved, as water is required to produce electricity.

The environmental, economic and health benefits attributable to the implementation of green infrastructure and low impact development are immense. If we don’t act today to allocate appropriate funding to replace outdated water and sewer systems with modern green infrastructure and low impact development, future costs on the environment and economy could be immense.

Hat-tip to Matt Polsky

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