When it comes to water sustainability, materials matter and so does the process of selecting the best, brightest, and greenest of products and services.
Take pipes, for instance. Different shapes, sizes, and materials with different strengths and weaknesses are available in the marketplace. My own view is that a “pipes of all types” approach makes sense nationally but locally some choices will prove to be smarter than others. Recent reports are highlighting the importance of choosing the right pipe for the right job and doing so in a manner that embraces competition rather than routine repetition. Smart selection, through open competition and upfront life cycle analysis, should then lead to sustainable asset management. Add it all up to save water, energy, and money over the long haul and prevent headaches along the way.
Why is all of this important? Civilization runs on water and yet the water and wastewater infrastructure that runs below us is often out-of-sight and out-of-time. Communities increasingly face (or choose to ignore at their peril) the growing need to fix the leaky, creaky pipes. The American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) 2012 report, Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge, underscores the urgency of the underground drinking water situation. The report estimates a $1 trillion or more price tag to maintain our current level of service, including growth over the next 25 years. The U.S. Conference of Mayors also points to the AWWA report and the fact that over 300,000 water main breaks occur each year, costing $50 billion in lost water and energy and repair bills. A century ago communities used thick cast iron pipes. Now, many of them are failing due to corrosion—a natural process involving exposure to air, water, and soil.
It’s important to ask about innovative financing and “true value pricing” in response to infrastructure needs and gaps but here’s another important question to ask: What’s the best material for necessary pipes in the first place and in the replacement stage? There’s no single, right-or-wrong answer, particularly when you pit ductile iron and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe against one another. Cost, durability, performance, safety, and ease of maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation all factor into making the right choice for water piping infrastructure in a particular community in a particular watershed. For each, key factors include life cycle analysis, susceptibility to corrosion, availability of engineered coatings and linings, overall durability, hydraulic pressure capacity, and replaceability. There’s an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of each, often centering on size, hydraulic capacity, and resistance to corrosive soils.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ April 22, 2013 report, Municipal Procurement: Procurement Process Improvements Yield Cost-Effective Public Benefits a argues that open competition for piping materials would spur innovation and substantially reduce the reported $2.28 trillion in investment required for new piping in the U.S. over the next 20 years. The report urges cities to take a lead role in modernizing infrastructure procurement practices: “An important step in effectively managing assets is to create an open procurement and selection process which allows for all appropriate materials to be considered and accurately and fairly compared….Procurement habituation in pipe material consideration combined with a failure to take advantage of the open bidding process impedes competitive cost savings.” It’s a controversial topic but the Conference of Mayors is making the point that in some localities “habituation” (following habit ritualistically without looking at new materials and services) has taken root, diminishing opportunities for a more open and competitive procurement of sustainable goods and services.
The U.S. Water Alliance, which employs me, recognizes the importance of pipes and other “gray infrastructure” and the role of materials in sustaining such infrastructure. It’s all important to the broader effort of shaping an integrated national “one water” vision. Our organization is also firmly committed to supporting the increased use of green infrastructure, such as enhanced or conserved wetlands, floodplains, and engineered approaches like check dams, swales, and rain gardens. These techniques help to keep rainwater out of sewer systems to avoid polluting overflows into surface waters. They can also reduce flooding that harms not only water quality but also the “gray” or engineered infrastructure that supplies drinking water and handles wastewater. Both the U.S. EPA and States around the country have begun encouraging local solutions to include green infrastructure as part of a more cost-effective approach to sustainable water management. U.S. Water Alliance supports continued investment in green infrastructure and smart selection of the materials to maintain the green and the gray to sustain the blue.