Contact: Sandra Fallon, National Environmental Services Center
Phone: (304) 293-4191 x5582; E-mail:

Article/References Word Count: 1,596
Article Release Date: September 2009


Managing Aging Water Infrastructure Assets: Planning Ahead Saves Time and Money
By Sandra Fallon and Mark Kemp, National Environmental Services Center

Few things are as dramatic as a levee break or a bridge collapse. The tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina and the I-35 bridge failure in Minneapolis have put the serious state of America's public works in the spotlight and sparked renewed discussions about the country's aging infrastructure. Meanwhile, another infrastructure crisis is happening largely out of sight and out of mind: the country‚Äôs drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems are aging.  And while these systems rarely make the national news, the threat that deteriorating facilities pose to hard-won environmental and public health improvements is no less real.   

Much of the water infrastructure we rely on today was installed after World War II, although some cities have pipes in the ground dating back to the 1800s. Much of this equipment has reached the end of its useful life and needs to be repaired or replaced. The U.S Government Accountability Office estimates that nationwide up to a $1 trillion investment is needed in drinking water and wastewater systems over the next two decades.

"Infrastructure" refers to the pipes, treatment plants, pumps, valves, water storage tanks, hydrants, and other critical components that deliver safe drinking water to our taps, support fire and emergency services, remove wastewater from our homes and other buildings, and carry away storm water from our streets. This infrastructure helps protect the public health, the environment, and economic activity; contributes to a good quality of life; and likely represents the community's largest capital investment.

What are the Impacts of Aging Water Infrastructure?
Infrastructure malfunction and failure can disrupt any and all water services, and problems are more likely to occur as equipment ages. One of the biggest problems is water loss from leaks or breaks in the drinking water distribution system: the underground pipes that carry water from the treatment plant to the user. Water lost equals money lost, because the water has already been treated. Furthermore, the public health is at risk if harmful organisms enter the pipe and flow to the tap. Broken or blocked wastewater pipes can cause systems to overflow during major rainstorms or heavy snowmelt and discharge raw (untreated) sewage into local waterways. This, along with stormwater discharges, especially during heavy rainfalls, can pollute beaches and waterways making them unsafe for swimming, fishing, and boating.

Local Government Leadership is Key
Providing clean, safe, and affordable water to our citizens is one of the greatest public health achievements of the last century. Local government has been at the forefront, serving as the public entity responsible for providing sewer, water, and storm water services to generations of families in local communities. Below are some key strategies for maintaining and sustaining these critical services.

Learn about the condition of your water infrastructureAn important first step is to discuss with your water and sewer plant operators/managers the condition of the systems. Visit the drinking water system well or surface water intake, treatment plant, points along the distribution system, and storage tanks. Take a look at the wastewater treatment plant and processes, pump stations and other key points along the collection system, inspect the manhole covers and storm drains, as well as the discharge points where treated water or storm water is released into the environment. Get to know how the system operates. Find out if there‚Äôs a maintenance plan, what equipment works and what doesn‚Äôt, and what can happen as a result. This small investment of time up front can yield better decisions and save time and money in the long run.

Implement an asset management plan.According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asset management is a "planning process that ensures that you get the most value from each of your assets and have the financial resources to rehabilitate and replace them when necessary." Assets to consider managing typically include any infrastructure component that has a useful life of more than one year. Asset management involves gathering key information to determine: (1) what you have, (2) where it is, (3) what condition it's in, and (4) how long you can expect it to last. You can then use this information to make timely maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, replacement, capital improvement, rate-setting, financial planning, and other decisions. A utilit'‚Äôs existing plans, such as the strategic, long-range, operations and maintenance, or capital improvement plan can be integrated or aligned with the asset management plan.

Any size system can benefit from asset management planning. For example, the asset management plan may indicate that it's more cost-effective to replace a piece of equipment now, rather than spend money maintaining it for several more years. It can also help identify the cost to replace and maintain all equipment over the next 10 or 20 years, and help calculate how much money to set aside in reserve each year to cover these future expenses. In the long run, asset management can help you move out of crisis management mode, extend the service life of equipment, reduce system down-time, identify repair and replacement costs, give you more time to plan and research cost-effective solutions for replacing and rehabilitating assets, improve your ability to comply with regulations, show the public and investors that you are using their money effectively and efficiently, enhance your opportunity for obtaining financing, and enable system personnel to use their limited time and resources most efficiently. Asset management resources are listed at the end of this article, including streamlined approaches for small systems.

Educate the public.  When it‚Äôs time to repair, rehabilitate, or replace your water infrastructure, it's important for the public to understand and support your goals because taxpayers and ratepayers may be affected. Public education is a proactive way to inform the public about the value of the infrastructure, its condition and needs, and what's required to keep water services up and running. Research suggests that people prefer to learn about water issues by reading printed fact sheets, bulletins, and brochures; reading a newspaper article or watching television coverage; and visiting a Web site. 

Where to go for information. Your state regulatory agencies can help identify opportunities to finance drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects. State revolving loan programs, funded by the U.S. EPA, are administered by state regulatory agencies to provide low or no-interest loans, or in some cases grants, to assist public water and municipal waste system construction projects. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increases the amount of money available through state revolving funds. See the"References and Resources" section below for Web links.

Though largely out of sight and out of mind, water systems are aging and need attention. Whether the challenges call for immediate action or require long-term planning, local leadership is essential to success. Communicating with water utility managers and operators, implementing an asset management program, and educating the public are proactive strategies that will help save time and money in the long-run, and help ensure that your utilities continue to provide clean, safe, affordable water.


References and Resources
Asset Management: A New Frontier for Utilities (Spring 2005)by C. Falvey. In Small Flows Quarterly, Volume 6, Number 2. National Environmental Services Center.

Asset Management for Local Officials (2008), fact sheet describing the basics of asset management and the local official’s role in implementing a successful program. U.S. EPA.

Asset Management: A Handbook for Small Water Systems (2003), free step-by-step guidebook, with worksheets and examples, for implementing an asset management plan. U.S. EPA.

Check Up Program for Small Systems (CUPPS), free asset management software for small drinking water and wastewater systems. U.S. EPA. CUPPS information available at:; CUPPS software (downloadable or CD-ROM versions) available at

Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1995. U.S. Geological Survey.

Fact Sheet: Asset Management for Sewer Collection Systems (2002), describes an asset management approach for public wastewater facilities. U.S. EPA.

“Green Requirements Grow Economy, Benefit Environment”(Summer 2009) by C. McKenzie. In On Tap, Volume 9, Issue 2. National Environmental Services Center.

Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure (2008), a 90-minute documentary available to local government and education cable stations, community education programs, and schools. Web site includes a Community Toolkit. Produced by Penn State Public Broadcasting.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: America’s Aging Infrastructure Desperately Needs an Overhaul (Summer 2008) by M. Kemp-Rye. In On Tap, Volume 8, Issue 2. National Environmental Services Center.

Physical Infrastructure: Challenges and Investment Options for the Nation’s Infrastructure (5/8/2008). Testimony before the Committee on the Budget and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Government Accountability Office. Statement of P. A. Dalton, Managing Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues.

Water is Life, and infrastructure makes it happen. Web site includes a toolkit and resources for educating the public. Water Environment Federation.

Water Issues in the Four State Heartland Region: A Survey of Public Perceptions and Attitudes about Water (2007) by L.W. Morton and S.S. Brown. Technical Report SP 289, Iowa State Univ., Aimes, IA.

State Drinking Water Program and State Revolving Fund Contacts
Local Drinking Water Information, U.S. EPA Web site with information and links to state drinking water programs:

Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Agencies and Contacts, U.S. EPA:

Drinking water homepages and state primacy agency links, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators:

State Wastewater Programs and Clean Water State Revolving Fund Contacts
Municipalities and Wastewater Treatment Plants State Contacts, U.S. EPA:

Clean Water State Revolving Fund State Contacts, U.S. EPA: or


About the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center (NESC)
RCAP ( and its programs across the country offer water and wastewater training and assistance to small and rural communities, tribes, and water utilities. NESC (; (304) 293-4191) offers information, technical assistance via telephone, educational resources, and magazines and newsletters addressing water and wastewater issues for these same audiences.

Author Bios
Sandra Fallon is a training specialist with the National Environmental Services Center and has developed many educational resources addressing water issues for small community officials.

Mark Kemp is the National Environmental Services Centers communications manager and On Tap editor.