In November, Congress passed the historical Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – the single largest investment in infrastructure that the federal government has ever made. The bill will deliver more than $55 billion in funding to improve our nation’s water infrastructure, helping utilities and communities across the country build a more equitable and sustainable future.
The timing of the new bill is significant – utilities have already navigated the operational complexities of a global pandemic, while still working to address escalating water challenges driven by climate change impacts. Now, the focus has shifted, with utilities across the US looking towards energy efficient solutions to keep costs down and help decarbonize the water sector.
Put simply, the infrastructure decisions made today will have consequences for decades to come. To discuss what the infrastructure bill means for water utilities and communities across America, Making Waves sat down with Al Cho, Senior Vice President, Chief Strategy & Digital Officer at Xylem.
MW: The infrastructure bill will open up opportunities for water utilities right across the country. What funding and financing opportunities do you think will have the most impact?
AC: Well, I’ll start with the obvious, which is the huge boost to the State Revolving Funds (SRFs) that provide low-interest loans and grants for investment in water and sanitation infrastructure. This measure, combined with a sharpened focus on disadvantaged communities, will have a transformative impact on towns and cities across America.
This is a tremendous opportunity to invest in our infrastructure and to solve the kinds of water challenges that can improve the health and prosperity of our communities. For example, the EPA estimates that there are about 6 to 10 million lead services lines in cities and towns across the country. This funding will help address this issue, essentially meaning that millions of American families will no longer have to fear the harmful health effects caused by lead and other pollutants in their water.
It’s also encouraging to see funding flowing to climate risk and mitigation strategies. Better water management is absolutely essential to building climate resilience. Everything we need to address the biggest challenges of our time – from flooding and natural disasters to extreme droughts and water scarcity – hinges on communities having the right infrastructure in place.
MW: Much of the conversation around infrastructure investment is centred around grey infrastructure. What role do you think data and analytics will play?
AC: Hopefully, a central one. This is a once-in-a-generation investment – let’s not squander it on last-generation infrastructure.
For too long we have underinvested in critical infrastructure, making it next to impossible for water utilities to deliver safe, compliant, reliable and affordable water to their communities. Fortunately, the digital transformation of the water industry is moving at pace, and more and more utilities are realizing that digital solutions are one of the most powerful tools they have to become more resilient while remaining affordable.
By embedding secure, proven digital technologies into utility roadmaps and getting these projects reflected in intended use plans for the State Revolving Funds, utilities can realize bold water, energy and cost efficiencies. Technologies like advanced metering infrastructure, real-time decision support solutions and data-driven asset management will help lower the ongoing cost of the water infrastructure we need, making it more resilient and more affordable to communities.
If we simply reinvest in the last century’s infrastructure, we’ll find ourselves back here in thirty years’ time wishing we had made smarter choices. Instead, we now have the opportunity to make strategic investments in modern water systems that are more efficient, more reliable, pollute less, and that result in more affordable water. Let’s seize it.
MV: Some utilities are already leading the charge when it comes to investments in digital technologies. How have smart solutions delivered transformative benefits for utilities and communities so far?
AC: Intelligent solutions that optimize energy usage are already helping municipal, industrial and commercial water users save money and become more sustainable. They have also helped major cities deal with infrastructure headaches, like overflowing sewers, through system optimization – saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Essentially, these solutions are helping utilities across the US deliver more with less. The stories are incredibly inspiring.
For example, Evansville, a city in southwest Indiana, has reduced its sewer overflows by more than 100 million gallons every year for less than 5% of the next lowest cost solution, simply by making its sewers smarter, not bigger. South Bend, Indiana, is leveraging the same technology to optimize its existing sewer system, allowing the city to exceed the requirements of a wastewater consent decree for 60% less capital investment than originally planned.
Smart solutions also bring significant sustainability benefits, empowering utilities to achieve net-zero emissions at little or no cost. The IIJA funding will open up opportunities for other utilities to follow suit and apply advanced solutions that have the power to not only solve critical challenges across the water cycle, but to do so in a way that supports more sustainable operations.
MW: As we move from legislation to implementation, how can the EPA, communities and the private sector come together to ensure the right projects in the right places are getting done?
AC: Firstly, we need to work together to make sure everyone is aware of the art of the possible – sharing success stories and supporting technical assistance nationwide so that we’re all using today’s playbooks to build for the future.
Second, we also need to empower water infrastructure leaders at community-level to put funding where it is needed most, giving them the freedom and the power to purchase the best available solutions for their community without restrictions. We’re already hearing concerns that the funding comes with requirements that may delay projects or increase their cost. We need to be pragmatic so that those who need this money most don’t have to wait longer for clean water.
Finally, let’s celebrate water infrastructure and keep it front and center so people can see it and feel it. We complain all the time that we’re out of sight, out of mind. There has never been a better opportunity to make the invisible visible. Let’s engage the public like never before so they can understand how important and exciting it is to be making this historic investment in our future.
Learn more about the innovative approaches shaping the future of water here.
Find out how high-efficiency technologies and digital solutions can support the water sector’s Race to Zero here.