Episode 21: Water Infrastructure with Will Sarni (Water Foundry, LLC)


Water infrastructure refers to the immense underground highway of pipes that brings us our life-sustaining resource (and takes it away after we do our business). It also allowed plenty of bad jokes to flow through our pipes during the recording. Today's guest is Will Sarni, an expert in water technology and corporate water strategies, who recently wrote a report for Deloitte on the state of U.S. water infrastructure. Spoiler alert: it's in bad shape. It's a trillion dollar problem that will only get worse if we kick the can down the road. Will tells us how bad the problem is and how technology, public and private spending, and citizen engagement can help solve it.

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Episode Intro Notes


What We'll Cover

  • Why water infrastructure is important
  • How expansive our water infrastructure system is
  • The current state of our water infrastructure (spoiler alert, it’s not so great)
  • How much it will cost to fix our water infrastructure (spoiler alert, it’s a lot)
  • Latest and greatest tech to reduce our water use



Why is water infrastructure important?

Our water infrastructure handles all kinds of things for us, things that we never really have to think about. It takes away things like rain water and wastewater from our homes while bringing in safe (hopefully) drinking water and water for fire suppression. 

There are different types of water treatment providers including not-for-profit community water systems and small systems that only serve a couple thousand people, but 76% of the U.S. population gets their water from publicly-owned treatment works (i.e., owned and operated by a government agency, normally a local municipality) (2) so if their infrastructure is in bad shape, that could mean inefficient or harmful delivery of water for many people.

Still doubtful as to why you should care about our water infrastructure? Consider a combined sewer overflow infrastructure system, in which rainwater and wastewater are both channeled into a single pipe. When there is too much water in the system due to something like a heavy rain and the water treatment plant can’t keep up, water that would’ve been handled by the infrastructure is sent directly into waterways *untreated* to avoid backups into our homes. Do you want that in your waterways? Nope, didn't think so.


How Expansive is our Water Infrastructure?

In addition to the miles of sewer pipes, the U.S. has 1.2 million miles of water mains (pipes that go from the purification plant to customer systems)—26 miles of water mains for every mile of interstate highway (2, 3).


The Current State of our Water Infrastructure

Pipes can range from 15 to 100 years old depending on conditions, although some older northeastern cities operate with pipes that are 200 years old (2). These old pipes pose problems because they lead to all kinds of inefficiencies. For example: 

  • There an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the US, which is 650 per day (2). In other words, on average every mile of water pipe suffers a break every six years (9). 
  • U.S. water utilities lose one out of seven gallons of drinking water they supply before it arrives at a customer (9).
  • The direct cost of these leaks is $2.6 billion a year. This cost not only impacts residential users but also businesses of all kinds. The cumulative cost to households from a degrading water infrastructure will be $59 billion from 2013-2020 and the cost to business will be well more than double that, at $147 billion (20).

These old pipes are also part of a system that can’t handle our water use and leads to discharge of untreated water into our waterways. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that aging pipes and inadequate capacity resulted in the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater into U.S. waterways each year (2).


How much it will cost to fix our water infrastructure?

The American Water Works Association estimates that restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years (1). This estimate is just for drinking water pipes; sewer lines, stormwater, and the water treatment plants aren’t even included. Replacement needs account for about 54% of the national total, with about 46% attributable to population growth and migration over that period. It’s expected that more than 56 million new users will be connected to centralized treatment systems over the next two decades, which will be a 23% increase in demand (10). Postponement will increase these costs and also increase the odds of facing the high costs associated with water main breaks and other infrastructure failures (1).

Get this - 95% of spending on water infrastructure is made at the local level (10). However, the federal government does expend some funds on water infrastructure, mainly through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund:

  • The Clean Water State Revolving Fund was established in 1987 with amendments to the Clean Water Act. EPA puts money into these state-run revolving funds, and states give a 20% match of whatever is put in. This money is loaned out at below market rates for high priority water quality activities and the money that is paid back on the loan is used to fund more water projects (hence why it’s called a revolving fund). To date, there have been $111.2 billion in funding for water quality infrastructure projects and more than 36,000 loan agreements (11).
  • The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was established in 1996 with amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Similar structure with state-run revolving funds and the 20% match but for drinking water infrastructure projects. This program has provided more than $32 billion through close to 13,000 assistance agreements (12).

Basically, fixing our water system is not going be to an easy or cheap thing to do. It's about a trillion-dollar problem that nobody’s talking about. Except us... and Will Sarni.


Innovations in Water Tech

This space is a huge entrepreneurial opportunity for any of our listeners interested in the space. As Will attests, there’s much innovation that needs to happen. Here are a few of our favorites.

Washington-based Apana applies “Internet of Things” and analytics to help companies plug leaks that lose water and money, and wants companies to "control water like inventory." (15). Apana scans water infrastructure to detect mechanical breakdowns and give directions to fix the problems before they accumulate. They claim that their customers are returning 18%-25% of their water and sewer costs to their bottom line (16). For example, its biggest customer is the Costco, where the system reduced water use by 22 percent (15).

Aquafresco created a water-top recycling system that allows you to use the same batch of water and detergent for six months of laundry. They have proprietary technology that removes the organic waste but not the detergent from the water. It claims that its technology can reduce 95% of water and detergent use in washer machines (17). Or you could also just not wash your clothes at all…

One thing we do know is that major companies are going to be looking for this kind of new tech to mitigate its water risks. Companies that filled out CDP’s survey expect over half of the 4,416 water risks they identified through CDP in 2016—such as drought, declining water quality, and regulatory and reputational risks— to materialize within the next six years (14).

Further, while our situation in the US is not great, worldwide water infrastructure and treatment is a major issue too. Chew (sip, rather) on the following facts:

  • More than 80 percent of wastewater worldwide is released without treatment, contaminating rivers and lakes (4). The result is that every 90 seconds a child dies from water-related diseases (13).
  • On average, low-income countries treat only 8 percent of domestic and industrial wastewater. High-income countries treat 70 percent (4).
  • The total cost to water utilities caused by lost water worldwide can be conservatively estimated at $141 billion per year, with a third of it occurring in the developing world. In developing countries, the amount of water lost through leakage is enough to serve nearly 200 million people (6).


About Will Sarni

Will is the Founder and Principal of Water Foundry LLC, where he helps companies develop and implement corporate-wide water strategies. An internationally recognized thought leader on water strategies, Will is a columnist on sustainability and water strategies and has authored numerous articles and presented on; the value of water, water technology innovation, agriculture and the Internet of Things and the energy water food nexus.


Sources Cited:

  1. http://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/files/legreg/documents/BuriedNoLonger.pdf

  2. https://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/BPC-Aging-Water-Infrastructure.pdf

  3. http://www.circleofblue.org/2016/world/infographic-the-age-of-u-s-drinking-water-pipes-from-civil-war-era-to-today/

  4. http://www.voanews.com/a/world-water-day-wastewater/3777323.html

  5. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/

  6. https://www.wateronline.com/doc/report-reveals-high-cost-non-revenue-water-0001

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-revenue_water

  8. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f13002.pdf

  9. http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/12/13-things-you-probably-dont-know-about-the-u-s-water-system-but-should/

  10. http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Wastewater-Final.pdf

  11. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-03/documents/cwsrfinfographic-030116.pdf

  12. https://www.epa.gov/drinkingwatersrf/how-drinking-water-state-revolving-fund-works#tab-1

  13. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/compelling-new-data-why-we-shouldnt-waste-wastewater

  14. https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/001/861/original/When_wastewater_isn't_wasted.pdf?1490176134.

  15. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/circular-water-companies-make-splash-heard-round-world

  16. http://www.apana.com/

  17. http://aquafresco.co/

  18. https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/16/utilis-takes-top-water-innovation-prize-at-imagine-h2o/

  19. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/water_treatment.html

  20. https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/economy/issues-by-the-numbers/us-aging-water-infrastructure-investment-opportunities.html.