As age takes its toll, Colorado works around the clock to keep its water infrastructure in good working order
As anyone who’s heard a politician or engineer speak knows, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. While pothole-ridden roads and shaky bridges often capture the headlines, water infrastructure, though often hidden underground, is no exception. From dams to pipelines, critical water infrastructure that dates decades—sometimes more than a century—old is reaching the end of its useful life.
Every year, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) surveys water professionals, including utility managers, consultants, academics and scientists. In every year since the survey began in 2004, up to 2020, respondents listed “renewal and replacement of aging water and wastewater infrastructure” as the industry’s top challenge.
“The contaminant concerns flash brightly in the headlines, but what keeps most utility managers up at night is how they’re going to maintain and repair their infrastructure,” says Greg Kail, a spokesman for AWWA.
Even in the West, where cities were built more recently, age and a lack of routine maintenance mean that many utilities are grappling with the prospect of failing pipes, dams and ditches.
In its 2020 report card released in January, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave Colorado’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a “C-,” while dams were graded “C+.” The report estimates that it will take $10.2 billion over the next 20 years to maintain and upgrade the state’s drinking water infrastructure, and another $4.7 billion for wastewater.
That’s a notch better than the national marks; ASCE’s 2017 national report card gave the country’s drinking water a “D” and wastewater a “D+.” But, says Jonathan Harris, a co-author on the Colorado report, that shouldn’t be much consolation.
“We’re really on the lower end of mediocre,” says Harris, an associate resident engineer at Carollo Engineers in Denver. “We’ve got age and maintenance working hand in hand. With the utilities that don’t have the time or the money to maintain and work on their systems, age starts to play a large role in a short amount of time.”
Compared to its neighbors, the cost to repair Colorado’s infrastructure is second only to that of Utah, Harris says, making it one of the Western states with the highest risk.
It’s a problem up and down systems: from dams and reservoirs that may be slowly deteriorating, to pipelines with corroded and pockmarked linings that could leak valuable water, and treatment systems that require upgrades to keep up with evolving water quality regulations. Effects range from tiny leaks to the leaching of contaminants like lead into drinking water. At worst, a catastrophic dam failure could cause significant loss of life, while drinking water failures could shut down water systems entirely, leaving residents without clean tap water.
As climate change fuels heat waves, more intense storms, and droughts that will lead to water shortage, systems built before climate change was even a consideration will be put to the test. Already utilities are adjusting budgets to shore up their dams and treatment plants.
But as infrastructure costs rise, utilities aren’t always able to keep up without raising rates for their customers. Most fund their capital projects through a mix of revenue from utility bills and federal and state grants and loans. The latter sources, however, are increasingly oversubscribed as needs rise across the state; according to the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA), which provides water project financing through the State Revolving Funds and a loan and bond program, requests for funding have been doubling every five years.
Still, new technology and management practices and access to capital means the water industry is optimistic. When asked to rate the current health of the water system, respondents to the 2020 AWWA survey reported a record-high rating (the survey was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic). Still, that doesn’t mean the infrastructure concerns are going away anytime soon.
“I hear people call this an infrastructure crisis and I disagree with that,” says Frank Blaha, senior research manager at the Water Research Foundation (WRF) in Denver. “A crisis is an unusual situation that you get over. What utilities are dealing with is a new way of life.”
The Problem Beneath the Streets
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pegged the nation’s public water system needs at $472.6 billion over the next 20 years, more than 10 times what the agency has doled out to states over the past two decades through its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. AWWA projects an even greater need—its 2012 Buried No Longer report estimated that repairing and expanding drinking water systems alone would total at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.
In Colorado, much of the state’s most valuable water infrastructure could qualify for senior citizen status. Some 95 percent of the state’s water storage was constructed before 1960.
The Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C-BT), the state’s largest transbasin diversion that moves an average of 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River headwaters to the northern Front Range each year, was completed in 1957. More than 60 years old now, the C-BT’s infrastructure is being assessed by Northern Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with certain at-risk structures already identified to be repaired or replaced. The Grand Valley Project that diverts on average 662,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year to irrigate farms and operate the Grand Valley Power Plant in western Colorado dates back to the 1910s. Two turbines in the project’s power plant are at the end of their useful lives.
But experts say the worst problems are less flashy. The basic pipelines that form the skeleton of a utility can be the oldest parts of any water system. Some cities still rely on wooden pipes—one line under Denver’s Welton Street dates back to 1881. Breaks there can cause disruptive spills or allow infiltration of chemicals into drinking water.
“This is our biggest area of focus,” says Harris. “In existing developments in downtowns, it’s not easy or cost efficient to access those [pipes], and it’s difficult to maintain them.”
AWWA recommends an industry best practice of aiming for no more than 15 breaks per 100 miles of distribution per year. Because leaks and breaks may be defined differently across utilities, it’s hard to gauge whether that standard is being met. A review of surveys that Blaha presented at the 2017 ASCE Pipelines Conference found that utilities were reporting between 20 and 30 breaks per 100 miles each year. A 2018 report from Utah State University’s Buried Structures Laboratory, based on a survey of 281 utilities that provided data on nearly 200,000 miles of pipes, found that break rates had increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018, with an average of 14 breaks per 100 miles of pipe each year in the United States and Canada.
Disruptions due to breaks, the USU report said, “are now a common occurrence.” While conditions vary across cities, the study found that older cast iron and asbestos-lined pipes tend to be in bad shape. Main breaks can be a problem anywhere, especially when they disrupt service for a significant amount of time, but are especially a risk for smaller utilities, which don’t have the engineering staff to jump on repairs.
Most water main breaks are relatively small and easy to fix, with customers barely noticing. But occasionally, in the kind of scenario that keeps water providers up at night, they are severe enough to allow contamination of drinking water with bacteria. Or customers may see taps go dry. In February 2019, a pipe near the North Fork of the Gunnison River burst when water storage was at its lowest point of the year, leaving 1,600 water customers in Paonia without running water for a total of 13 days.
Monitoring The Pipes
Utility managers pride themselves on keeping water out of the headlines, but that comes with drawbacks.
“You acutely feel the failures of transportation infrastructure, whereas the impacts of a water main break are pretty localized and folks outside of that area don’t really see it,” says Scott Berry, director of policy and government affairs for the U.S. Water Alliance, a national nonprofit advocating for sustainable water infrastructure. “Increasingly water has been a part of the infrastructure conversation, but that’s taken some work.”
Aggressive maintenance would mean raising rates that had been kept deliberately low and stretching capital budgets. Underground infrastructure is also hard to regularly monitor and repair, and inspecting large pipelines can require shutting them down for hours.
Federal funding hasn’t offered much relief, even as tougher drinking water and wastewater standards have required utilities to spend more to get their equipment up to par. The Flint water crisis, which has been unfolding over the past five years, has also added pressure to cities to replace lead pipes, like Denver’s $500 million plan to replace lead service lines to between 64,000 and 84,000 homes over the next 15 years.
“Utility management has gotten significantly more complex in the past few decades. Some small communities just don’t know what to look for, through no fault of their own,” says Leanne Miller, a senior engineer at Carollo Engineers who works with communities on Colorado’s Western Slope. “And to be frank, some communities are just waiting for a disaster.”
Even the more proactive utilities are running behind. Theresa Connor, deputy director of Fort Collins Utilities says it “kind of feels like we’re running through quicksand” when maintaining the city’s more than 500 miles of water distribution and 450 miles of wastewater lines, some of which date back to 1883. The city has a record going back to the 1980s of every break, and every pipe, along with its material type, has been logged at installation since the 1950s. The record is also being modernized with GIS mapping to get a better sense of how best to target repairs.
Even with that level of foresight, Connor admits that the city is behind its renewal goals. Fort Collins has a goal of replacing its entire system every 100 years, but isn’t on track to do so for 250 years. A 10-year strategic plan, which will gradually raise rates to fund more aggressive repairs, should help the city get closer to the goal of replacing 1 percent of its infrastructure every year, but even that, Connor says, will require a surge.
Part of the problem for utility managers is that knowing infrastructure’s age isn’t enough. Older doesn’t always mean worse, and pipes installed during the Vietnam War may need to be swapped out before infrastructure dating back to World War I. Certain soil can be more corrosive, and differences in use and pressure can mean some pipes break down before others. Before the 1920s, cast iron pipe typically had a thicker wall that was less efficient to produce, but has made it more durable in the long run.
“Some of this pipe has been in the ground for 100 years and it looks brand new. Some it is more recent and it’s falling apart,” says WRF’s Blaha. “It’s all about the conditions it’s been subjected to.”
For example, a water main break in Pueblo over the July 4 weekend in summer 2019 flooded downtown streets with water and debris. When the deluge was captured on cell phone cameras, it became a crystallizing moment for many citizens around the risks posed by their aging water system.
The irony is that the flood wasn’t due to an out-of-date pipe. Instead, it was a flaw in a 5-year-old piece of equipment. In fact, Pueblo has cast iron pipes that date back to the late 1800s that are still in good working order. Pueblo Water director of operations Matt Trujillo said most of Pueblo Water’s repairs are on thinner-walled cast iron pipes installed in the 1950s and 1960s on the north side of town, where the soil is more corrosive.
To keep track of what infrastructure needs to be replaced and when, Pueblo has recorded all of its main breaks since 1972, which are plotted in GIS along with information about the soil, the type of pipe, and when it was originally installed. Trujillo says that means Pueblo isn’t just fixing breaks—it is spotting trends.
“We’re pretty certain that once you see breaks in the same area, with the same material, you’ll see that problem propagate itself,” Trujillo says. “Our approach is a little more proactive.”
Not every utility has that level of data and analysis, which makes infrastructure seem like a much bigger crisis than it actually is, Blaha says. If the assumption is that every pipe that’s more than a few decades old needs to be replaced, utilities face a daunting challenge—and perhaps an inflated one.
Blaha has worked with utilities to help them gather data like Pueblo has that helps inform where and why breaks are happening. When reviewing case studies for a typical utility, WRF has found that typically less than 10 percent of a utility’s pipe is deteriorated enough to require replacement.
“What you want to do is identify the riskiest pipes that really do need attention, the 10 percent of the pipes that cause 80 percent of your problems,” Blaha says. “There’s so much capital involved that you have to focus on what’s deteriorated, because nobody has the time or the money to focus on everything else.”
To hone in on risk, utilities are especially focused on prestressed concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP), a large-diameter pipe popular in the late 20th century. With a high volume running through them, PCCP failures tend to hemorrhage water and mean that a critical element in the system is lost, requiring costly and time-consuming repairs. Those failures are becoming more frequent.
However, some cities don’t know how much PCCP is under the streets, or don’t have a reliable inventory of any type of pipe. That makes it nearly impossible for them to track what’s at risk.
Steve Simon, who worked as principal engineer and infrastructure planner for Aurora Water from 2014 through April 2020, when he moved on to work for the City of Englewood, knew he had to monitor the four miles of PCCP that Aurora installed between 1979 and 1981, but wanted something better than annual inspections that only capture conditions at that moment. Even draining the pipe to manually inspect it, he says, “puts stress on the system.”
In 2019, the utility installed an acoustic monitoring system, which can “hear” when pipe is in trouble. PCCP is lined with high-tension wires that audibly snap as breaks occur. Xylem’s Pure Technologies SoundPrint system records the location of the break and alerts Simon of the break activity, so he can identify when and where breaks occur and stay ahead of system failure. Despite the high up-front cost of the monitoring system, Simon says that being ahead of the curve on maintenance—for example, seeing if one section of pipe is experiencing more stress—should help avoid costlier repairs down the road.
It’s just one of many new tools that has brought a high-tech approach to old infrastructure. Xylem has also worked with utilities throughout Colorado on advanced inspections that don’t require shutting down pipelines. The company’s “smart ball”—a softball-sized tool loaded with sensors—can run through pipes as water is flowing, listening for the tell-tale hissing sound that flags a leak. The ball reports where potential problems exist, helping target limited repair budgets. Xylem also offers a flexible PipeDiver robot that scans pipe walls for corrosion.
“We can’t look at this $1 trillion problem through the lens of ‘all the old stuff needs to be replaced,’” says Allison Stroebele, Xylem’s regional vice president overseeing Western states. “They have to do it in a way that’s affordable. Fixing all the pipes would make water unaffordable.”
When Aging Infrastructure Meets Storage Needs
As the state looks to expand its water storage capacity—a goal in the Colorado Water Plan (CWP)—there’s an increasing focus on dams and reservoirs. The 2019 Technical Update to the water plan projects a gap of anywhere from 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet between municipal and industrial water supply and demand by 2050, but also acknowledges that the state’s existing water supply system is not in prime condition.
According to ASCE, the average dam in Colorado is approximately 74 years old, meaning they were built without modern safety standards and in vastly different demographic conditions. Known construction on dams started in the 1860s and peaked in the 1960s, with a sharp decline in new construction since the 1990s. .
The Colorado Division of Water Resources (DWR) does regular inspections on the state’s 1,800 non-federal dams (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation oversees another 60 dams in the state), helping spot embankment and structural deterioration issues before they become a problem. In cases where there could be a serious hazard, like structural flaws that could lead to a dam break, the state will impose storage restrictions, reducing the amount of water the reservoir can hold until the structure is deemed safe.
According to Bill McCormick, chief of DWR’s dam safety branch, around 130 dams in Colorado are typically under those restrictions at any given time.
Often the needed fixes are relatively easy, a matter of updating technology or shoring up cracked concrete. Other times, there’s a more substantive overhaul required. Take, for example, the Walsenburg City Lake Dam. After more than a century of use, its problems ranged from seepage to an outdated design to cattails growing up through the dam’s concrete, says Mark Perry, a DWR safety engineer in the Pueblo office.
DWR put the dam under a compliance plan, with a list of potential steps for the city to overhaul the site. Rather than make incremental improvements, Walsenburg elected to effectively build a new, modern dam to replace the existing one (funded by $10 million in loans and grants from the Colorado Water Conservation Board).
That, says Perry, isn’t typical, but shows that even the oldest dams can be brought up to modern standards with new technology and design practices. But complete overhaul can be the best option for truly outdated infrastructure. As a bonus, it allowed Walsenburg to expand its storage capacity; it’s a model, Perry says, of how dam repair can be an active part of the state’s water plan and address storage and safety at the same time.
But hazard isn’t just about the state of a dam—surroundings matter too. Many dams were built when Colorado’s population was sparser. Now, new developments have sprung up at their feet, making a potential failure all the riskier. In addition to evaluating the status of dams, the state also classifies them by their hazard risk based on the nearby population. According to McCormick, more than 400 dams are considered “high hazard.” Recent increases in that number are largely due to “hazard creep,” a term referring to the increased consequences of dam failure due to development around a reservoir or dam.
“If a high-hazard dam were to fail, there is the potential for the loss of life,” McCormick says. “We manage that risk by working on reducing the likelihood of failure.” Restrictions on high-hazard dams are meant to protect against dam failure and save lives. These dams are subject to more stringent design standards, more frequent inspections, and managers must develop emergency action plans that would guide the evacuation of downstream residents should failure occur.
Pricey Replacements and Repairs, Who Pays?
These repairs take money, which means utilities face a future where water is no longer as cheap as it has been. According to the 2020 AWWA survey, rate increases were the top funding source for utilities, with 25 percent of respondents listing it as a way to cover needs.
While utilities try to make increases tenable for all customers, they will inevitably hit low-income consumers hardest—especially if there’s a steep rise in a single year.
According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, wastewater rates have risen faster than inflation since 2002. Fourteen million people, or 12 percent of households, pay unaffordable rates, defined by the EPA as more than 4.5 percent of a region’s median household income. According to a 2018 study from Michigan State University (MSU), over the next five years that percentage could rise to nearly 36 percent of households.
So far, Colorado utilities have avoided massive price shocks thanks to relatively new infrastructure, conscious rate setting, and conservation that reduces overall use. Still, the MSU study says there are a handful of “high risk” tracts where the median income is less than $32,000 and a rate jump would disproportionately affect ratepayers, including Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Alamosa.
Capital costs also aren’t getting cheaper. In fact, limited construction crews and higher building costs mean the price tags of some projects have doubled since they were first proposed, says Keith McLaughlin, executive director of CWRPDA, a state-run financing resource for water and wastewater utilities.
Many utilities are gradually doling out rate increases to ease the potential shock, or are exploring solutions like income-based billing that would not disproportionately affect the poorest consumers. But what about smaller systems that have lost population or can’t shoulder skyrocketing capital costs?
Take the Town of Peetz, which sits just south of the Nebraska border near Sterling. State inspectors say the town’s wastewater storage lagoon, constructed in the 1960s with an old clay liner, has been leaking, contaminating groundwater. Peetz has known about the leak for more than 10 years and has been working on a solution, but installing new wastewater lagoons will cost around $2.9 million. With a population of just 233 people, the money can’t be raised through rates alone. “There’s just no way to raise those kinds of funds,” says Amy Sorensen, a consultant for Peetz’s new wastewater facility. “All of our rate estimates are based on 115 users who are paying rates,” Sorensen says. “You can’t raise a lot of money when you’re sending out 115 bills every month.”
For those kinds of large capital projects, the federal government offers funds through EPA’s State Revolving Funds, which allows states to offer low-interest loans for large projects. Colorado nets about $20 million for drinking water and $12 million for wastewater each year from the SRF, which CWRPDA distributes. The payments are made as loans, with repaid money distributed anew.
CWRPDA is offering Peetz $700,000 in loans—though the town hopes to only need $400,000 of that—plus another $185,000 in grants. But some $2 million more has to be pieced together from other sources—the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development fund is contributing another $670,000 in grants and loans and the project is also getting money from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. It’s indicative, McLaughlin says, of how all communities, but especially those that are economically strapped, have to approach massive infrastructure project financing.
“With these systems that often are not seeing growth, it’s tough to meet these demand costs,” McLaughlin says. “It’s a struggle to meet existing regulations and build for future demand.”
Peetz hopes to have its new evaporative lagoons constructed so it can discontinue use of the existing, leaking lagoon by summer 2021, but it hasn’t been easy, Sorensen says. “These town boards are stuck with the burden to do these projects but they can’t get people to be on the boards or to participate in city government,” she says. At the same time, often people who are on local water boards are retired, or don’t have experience applying for grants, let alone managing a $2.9 million project. “Even though they’re small towns, they still need the same kind of reporting and licensing on their water,” Sorensen says. “People have no idea. There’s just a lot.”
Then there’s the cost to residents. Even with the mix of funding that Peetz was able to secure, the town will have to raise sewer rates from around $50 per month today to $55 by the time construction begins, assuming they’re able to keep costs within budget, Sorensen says.
According to a 2017 report from the research firm RAND Corporation, local governments provide 95 percent of funding for drinking water, sewer and wastewater infrastructure, but federal programs can catalyze expensive capital projects. EPA’s revolving funds have kept the nation’s infrastructure in a usable state. The agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund was created in 1987 and has distributed $138 billion through 2019; a separate Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was established in 1996 and has provided $38.2 billion.
But those funds are now notoriously oversubscribed; between 2017 and 2018, requests increased 25 percent, according to a report from Bluefield Research. Low federal interest rates amid COVID-19 also mean the state’s revolving funds are bringing in less money in repayments, making it harder to lend even as more projects seek aid.
Passage of the federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) in 2014 offered a new funding source. The low-interest loan program is separate from the state revolving funds and targets large projects (more than $20 million for large communities and $5 million for communities of 25,000 or less), offering up to 49 percent of project costs. Through 2019, the project has offered 14 loans for $3.5 billion in financing. No Colorado project has cashed in yet, however the Town of Eagle submitted a request in 2017 to finance the first phase of a new water treatment plant. The Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART (Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow) has also emerged as a key source of federal funding for efficiency measures and storage projects.
As both the White House and Congress have pitched infrastructure as part of the COVID-19 recovery, it’s not clear what role water would play in a funding package compared to other infrastructure. According to a report from the U.S. Water Alliance, the federal government funds just 9 percent of total water spending, compared to the 63 percent it backed 40 years ago, while the share for transportation infrastructure has stayed constant, at about 50 percent of total capital spending.
House Democrats proposed a $760 billion infrastructure package in January that would include $50.5 billion for clean water and $25.4 billion for drinking water, including new cash for the EPA’s revolving funds and would lower eligibility requirements for small communities to get funding. President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal in his fiscal year 2021 budget released in February 2020 also earmarked money for water infrastructure, although the overall budget would cut EPA’s revolving funds, and some money for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that goes to dams and other large water projects.
In the meantime, it’s up to local utilities to take the lead and make sure their systems can deliver water to the people who need it says AWWA’s Kail.
“If we hope that someday there’s some sort of federal silver bullet, history tells us that’s unlikely,” Kail says. “What we need is utilities that can build support and help people understand their water systems. Any system that doesn’t operate efficiently, even for a day, has a huge impact on its community.”