What Could Be the Next Big Thing in Infrastructure?

Photo by Marta L. Weismann

Infrastructure is a key component of how our water is supplied. Just think of the water treatment and distribution systems that deliver clean water to your tap and usher away dirty wastewater. To get the water into those distributions systems, we use canals and pipelines that move water from one place to another on a larger scale—e.g. the Colorado River Aqueduct, which moves water from the Colorado River to the Metropolitan Water District service area in Southern California. Also, desalination and reclamation plants are used to address water supply and water quality needs.

Water infrastructure in the U.S. faces two major problems—existing infrastructure is aging, and we need more (or we need innovative ways to store, treat, and distribute water). Aging infrastructure leads to sensational problems like geyser-causing water main breaks and the fractured spillway at Oroville Dam, as well as more invisible issues, such as the leaching of elements like lead or copper into water supplies. To prevent the resulting water loss, economic impacts, and public health crises, old infrastructure needs to be replaced. New infrastructure addresses a separate set of needs, including improving flood management, increasing water supplies, improving water supply reliability, and resolving water quality issues or other environmental concerns.

Despite the necessity of water infrastructure, funding chronically falls short of needs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) projects that additional funding needs (aka the funding gap between current investment levels and total needs) for water infrastructure will exceed $655 billion over the next 20 years.

Filling the Gap

Efforts are being made to bridge the funding gap. On the federal level, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (“WIFIA”) in 2014 to establish a long-term, low-interest loan program to provide up to 49% of the funding for large projects. EPA recently launched the program, which will provide $1 billion in credit to infrastructure projects.

States are also taking action to address infrastructure repair needs. In California, in the wake of the situation at Oroville Dam’s auxiliary spillway, Governor Jerry Brown announced a four-point plan to bolster flood protection and dam safety, which, along with policy changes, includes a $437 million investment for flood control and emergency response and request for additional funding from the federal government. In Michigan, the state will pay $87 million and keep another $10 million in reserve to replace unsafe water lines in Flint by 2020 under a recently approved settlement agreement.

There are additional efforts aimed at attracting private capital. In his remarks before the Joint Session of Congress earlier this year, President Trump asked Congress to approve a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure to be financed through public and private capital. A post on the World Bank’s Infrastructure & Public-Private Partnerships Blog highlights ways for cities to mobilize private capital to meet infrastructure needs. And a report by the Reason Foundation notes the benefits of public-private partnerships and makes policy recommendations to overcome the barriers to private investment in infrastructure.

While increasing investment and finding additional sources of funding may help reduce the magnitude of the gap, the shortfall persists. Continually chasing dollars seems like a case example for Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Is there another way?

Various solutions—that range from improving the efficiency of existing infrastructure to meeting water management goals without additional infrastructure—have been proposed or implemented.

The Environmental Defense Fund (“EDF”) recently argued for establishing a stable funding source to meet the costs of infrastructure maintenance and environmental mitigation. EDF also recommends a more holistic approach that includes funding forest management, setting back levees to provide space for flood waters to spread out, maximizing recharge opportunities, stabilizing infrastructure funding, and improving use of natural infrastructure.

Some solutions revive or expand old ideas. Take for example, EDF’s spotlight on recharge. Recharge has long been used as a water management tool. Water managers in adjudicated groundwater basins in Southern California have been recharging imported supplies to offset pumping depletions. In Arizona, the Arizona Water Banking Authority (“AWBA”) and Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (“CAGRD”) have long been storing supplies underground to meets water supply needs during a shortage. Groundbreaking water banking agreements are not noteworthy because of new technology but because of a new spirit of cooperation that allows for a party with recharge facilities to store water on behalf of another party.

Catchment of rain is another old-becomes-new-again development. Cisterns, underground storage vessels that are typically used to capture and store rainwater, have existed since the Stone Age and were common in the Middle Ages. In the modern era, rain barrels, which were common household fixtures in past generations, have also reemerged. During the California Drought, there was a renewed focus on rain barrels, with water districts offering rebates and discounts—and even giving them away. The containers are expected to reduce demands for potable water supplies and help improve water quality where storm drains run into natural water bodies.

Truly innovative advances also abound. The Los Angeles Department of Water Power (“LADWP”) is undertaking a pilot project to install earthquake-resistant ductile iron pipes. The pipes are joined together in a way that allows for movement—so earthquakes and land subsidence won’t cause the joints to pull apart. In addition, a two-layer protective coating that includes a constituent that will self-heal against scratches and corrosion will extend the lifespan of the pipes. While the Kubota Corporation has been manufacturing the pipes for more than four decades, LADWP is the first user outside of Japan.

Another new development, additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, presents boundless opportunities for infrastructure. The technological development provides for rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing. While social media has left much of the public familiar with the novelty applications and the fears about the potential proliferation of 3-D printed weapons, the usefulness of 3-D printing for developing public goods is less known. A recent report by researchers at the Centre for Advanced Separations Engineering (“CASE”) at the University of Bath, England discusses the possibility of 3-D printing to design and develop membranes for desalination plants. 3-D printed membranes could improve on the current design by allowing for membranes to be produced with customized pores and surface shapes—ultimately making membranes more efficient and durable.

In another step toward innovating infrastructure development, a video out of the Netherlands showing the “printing” of a road has made the rounds though social media. While the process shown is not additive manufacturing, it does improve the efficiency of paving a brick road and begs the question of whether there are processes that can be employed to improve the efficiency of developing, repairing, or replacing water infrastructure.

Then there are solutions that require no infrastructure.  Lluvia Solida (Solid Rain), a potassium powder that is being marketed to farmers in drought-prone regions Mexico, offers an innovative water storage solution. When the farmers plant seed, they include a bit of the powder. Like the roots of a desert cactus, it absorbs water when it is plentiful, holding up to 500 times its volume, and can store it for up to eight years. The farmers liken it to “planting rain.”

Concluding Thoughts

Recent headlines have demonstrated the crumbling state of our water infrastructure. But various forms of media also have shown us innovations that can help efficiently and effectively meet our infrastructure needs. With water infrastructure solutions and water supply issues being addressed on so many fronts, will the future of infrastructure be driven by improved manufacturing processes or no infrastructure at all?

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About Marta L. Weismann

Marta L. Weismann, Director of Research of Stratecon Inc.—an economics and strategic planning consulting firm—provides research support for all aspects of Stratecon’s services and is the Managing Editor for the Journal of Water, a quarterly publication providing in-depth analysis of water market activity and selected water policy developments in the Colorado River Basin, Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest. She also participates on teams dedicated to developing new ways to address water supply issues in the American Southwest. For more, go to www.stratwater.com.