The economy-induced disparity between needs and resources continues to plague most of the nation’s water and wastewater utility owners, leaving them little choice but to focus on maintaining the infrastructure they already have rather than investing in new and expanded facilities.
“We are seeing a marketplace under extreme financial pressure,” observes Blair M. Lavoie, senior vice president and director of U.S. operations for MWH Constructors Inc., Broomfield, Colo. “Many cities have seen 30% to 40% of their revenue stream evaporate.”
For example, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), which serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California, is cutting $200 million from its five-year improvement plan. The cost reduction is due in part to a falloff in water sales from its 150 reservoirs.
According to EBMUD general manager Dennis Diehmer, capacity increases that had driven projects for several years are no longer there. “Now, our focus is on repairing and refurbishing existing facilities so that we can stretch their operational life for as long as we can,” Diehmer says.
Revenue shortfalls also have created a conundrum for many owners, according to Brian Wheeler, executive director of the Toho Water Authority, Kissimmee, Fla., and chairman of the Water Environment Federation’s Utility Management Committee.
Despite favorable construction prices, a boost in federal support of the State Revolving Loan program and historically low interest rates, “if a utility has no revenues to borrow on, all it can do is prioritize work and make do with politically acceptable rate increases,” he says.
Regardless of their resource availability, utilities required to correct discharge-related water-quality problems must adhere to their mandated project completion schedules.
To satisfy two sewage overflow consent orders, the Columbus, Ohio, Dept. of Public Utilities (DPU) is investing $2.5 billion in its wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure. The agency will soon start construction of a $300-million, 23,300-ft-long, 20-ft-dia tunnel to address combined sewage overflows along the Scioto River.
Columbus DPU director Tanya Arsh says the agency is relying on a series of rate increases to fund these improvements as well as projects such as a $140- million reservoir that will protect the utility’s 1.2 million customers from the risk of droughts for the next 50 years.
Arsh explains that the largest rate increases—15% to 18%—were implemented when the economy was good. “Though the more recent rate increase has been smaller, consumption is down as well, which forces us to meet regulations with less revenue,” Arsh says.
Further, population growth, another driver for water and wastewater infrastructure improvements, has fallen off in most parts of the country.
Still, some capacity-boosting programs are under way. Pima County, Ariz., is in the midst of its $720- million Regional Optimization Master Plan, which will improve the quality of effluent discharged into the Santa Cruz River through the expansion and upgrade of the existing Ina Road Wastewater Reclamation Facility from 35.5 million gallons per day to 50 mgd, construction of a new 32- mgd facility and a five-mile “plant interconnect” pipeline.
Despite the population increases that have supported these improvements, the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Dept. already has boosted sewer rates 81% over the past five years to help fund the improvements. Rates will continue to rise by nearly 30% over the next five years, according to department director Michael Grits.
“While sewer user fees in Pima County were artificially low for decades, recent increases have placed a strain on our system’s users,” Grits explains. “But with few other funding alternatives and the regulatory nature of these projects, our county board of supervisors has had little choice but to raise user rates.”
To control costs and ensure they are getting the most from what construction funds they have, a growing number of utility owners are exploring project delivery options such as design-build and construction manager-at-risk. And some utilities are overcoming their long-held hesitancy to explore public-private partnerships for selected elements of their operations.
For instance, Pima County’s new 32-mgd treatment plant will be a design-build-operate project that will remain in-house, while the New York City Dept. of Environmental Protection reportedly is considering outsourcing its sludge treatment operations.
“We’ll definitely see more interest in public private partnerships,” says Lou Tortora, executive vice president and leader of AECOM’s New York City-based North American Water Group.
With even the most optimistic forecasts predicting a slow recovery, water and wastewater treatment system owners can expect several more years of stretching both their budgets and their facilities’ performance. “We’re in for another year of close scrutiny on budgets,” Diehmer says. “We’ll stretch our funding as much as we can with existing facilities, but we’re at least a year away from seeing our revenue picture turn around.”
This balancing act may be further complicated by any fluctuation in energy prices, often among treatment system’s largest expenditures. Arsh says the problem’s potential is exacerbated by the more stringent regulatory demands to meet higher water-quality targets while also curbing energy consumption.
“Communities should be able to address these demands in a more holistic way, but nobody on the regulatory side is trying to balance these interests,” she says.
However, even with a strong economic rebound, water and wastewater systems still will be competing with other public services with long-deferred needs. “Infrastructure renewal is a problem that’s going to be with us for a while,” says Toho Water’s Wheeler.