The American Society of Civil Engineers released its evaluation of America’s infrastructure on March 9th and across 16 different categories, the average was a D+. Its highest mark, a B, was awarded to the country’s railway systems, and its lowest rating, a D- went to transit. In other words, our nation’s roads, pipes, waterways, bridges, power lines, and transportation hubs are in dreadful shape.
On the water side of these infrastructural categories, drinking water and wastewater categories earned a D and D+ respectively. “From Flint, Michigan to Los Angeles, California and hundreds, possibly thousands of other communities, the cascading effects of the nation’s crumbling water infrastructure is a clear and present threat to Americans’ wellbeing and quality of life,” wrote National Association of Water Companies executive director Michael Deane in a statement. “The continued deterioration of the nation’s water systems could lead to increased water service disruptions, more barriers to emergency response, impacts to other public infrastructure, as well as threats to public health for many Americans.”
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The truth is, our water infrastructure is some of the most invisible and challenging to maintain. And drinking water pipes, pump stations, storage containers, sewer lines, treatment plants, reservoirs across the nation are in dire need of replacement and upgrades. As the report points out, the US uses 42 billion gallons of water a day in both residential and industrial purposes. Nearly 76% of the population relies on the country’s 14,748 wastewater treatment plants. There are 800,000 miles of public sewers. We depend heavily on this aging water infrastructure.
We’re also challenged to find the funding to repair and/or replace it. The ASCE report card indicates that funding issues are a fundamental problem for both categories. Furthermore, the report card outlines the importance of investing in these infrastructural elements and fixing existing problems. From 2016 to 2025, the ASCE estimates that each household will lose $3,400 a year in disposable income due to infrastructure deficiencies. If they are not addressed, the loss will grow to an average of $5,100 annually from 2026 to 2040, resulting in cumulative losses up to almost $34,000 per household from 2016 to 2025 and almost $111,000 from 2016 to 2040. In essence, we can’t afford not to make the necessary repairs.
In light of the report’s release, we reached out to University of California Berkeley professor emeritus, Bob Bea, of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, for his insights on infrastructure risk management, on the value of the ASCE report, and strategic steps for rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
Water Efficiency (WE): Are you at all surprised by the low marks awarded to both drinking water (D) and wastewater (D+)?
Bob Bea (BB): No, I am not surprised by this ‘needs much improvement’ grade. I started my professional career in 1954—working for the US Army Corps of Engineers in their South Florida ‘flood control’ District—helping build drainage canals, levees, pump stations, and other facilities to help ‘drain the Everglades’. I left the Corps of Engineers in 1959. It was already becoming apparent we needed to put the water back in the Everglades. This sad story is a cautionary tale for us today. Treat water with respect.
WE: We understand that you’ve assembled a “disaster database.” What are some of the insights you’ve gathered from your years of studying disasters?
BB: I think the single most important thing that I’ve learned from detailed study and personal investigation of more than 630 major disasters involving ‘engineered systems’ is that these infrastructure disasters can be predicted by a simple ‘equation': A + B = C. A are natural hazards like earthquakes, severe storms, ice, waves, and floods. B are human and organizational hazards like hubris, arrogance, complacency, greed, corruption, ignorance, and indolence. C are disasters sooner or later.
WE: What are “infrastructure geriatrics” and how can we effectively manage them?
BB: Engineers and infrastructure ‘managers’ are very comfortable with infrastructure ‘pediatrics’—configuring, designing, constructing, and operating complex engineered systems. In the US, they rely on ‘prescriptive’ codes and guidelines—based on ‘experience’ with earlier comparable systems. The concept of safety (“freedom from undue exposure to injury and harm”) is vague, frequently based on ‘experience’ and subjective judgment. Infrastructure ‘pediatrics’ is exciting because new ‘things’ are being built and operated.
Engineers and infrastructure ‘managers’ are not so comfortable with infrastructure ‘geriatrics’—maintaining existing systems so they are ‘safe’ and ‘serviceable.’ But, there are new challenges that come from ‘aging’ processes like corrosion, rot, fatigue, cracking, and settlement. All of these aging processes act to increase the likelihoods of major failures. There are also new challenges because the consequences of failure of these systems have generally remarkably increased. The ‘risks’—the combination of likelihoods and consequences of major failures have increased. But, the engineering and management references to ‘safety’ have not changed. The safety has actually decreased along with the increased Risks associated with major disasters.
There is another important problem associated with infrastructure ‘geriatrics’ . . . people. Back to the A + B = C disaster equation, as one my colleagues (Ed Wenk, Jr.) put it to me one night after spending several days ‘swimming’ around New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina: “Bob, engineers want to believe our planet is not inhabited . . . you don’t like people . . . you leave them out of your ‘engineering equations’ . . . you believe them away by expecting they will behave according to established laws and guidelines. Guess what is causing our infrastructure disasters?”
As a result of these challenges, the US approach to infrastructure ‘geriatrics’ has become largely ‘reactive’—wait until it fails and then do something about it.
WE: Do you feel that the ASCE’s report card is positive or a waste of time? What are some possible positive outcomes?
BB: I think ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card has served some very important needs here in the US. The class-like ‘grades’ are something that people can readily understand: A is very good. F is very poor.
ASCE has also given attention to the costs associated with infrastructure maintenance . . . and the lack of maintenance. This has been a good attempt to inform the public about what can happen if these infrastructure systems fail.
The ASCE Report Card grades are very similar to the quantitative measures that can be developed to help evaluate infrastructure Risks . . . likelihoods of failure (e.g. probabilities of major failures) and consequences of failure (e.g. expected fatalities and injuries, expected direct and indirect monetary costs). These validated quantitative infrastructure ‘risks’ are how other ‘developed’ countries (e.g. Netherlands, Norway, UK) work to manage their infrastructure systems so that the risks are ‘As Low As Reasonably Practicable’ [ALARP]”. These countries cannot afford the consequences of failures . . . that are generally 100 to 1,000 times greater than the costs associated with prevention of failures. These countries must be much more proactive and interactive with a focus on maintaining infrastructure ALARP risks.
WE: What, in your opinion, is the most logical strategy for rebuilding America’s infrastructure? What solutions do you suggest?
BB: Start now.
Develop a keen sense and evaluation of the wide variety hazards and Risks that infrastructure systems must confront successfully—‘cognizance’.
Learn how to properly assess infrastructure risks (‘counting’). Define ‘safe’ as the system state that will develop ALARP risks.
Educate and qualify engineers, operators, and managers, to properly assess infrastructure risks using valid and validated analytical processes to determine risk likelihoods and consequences—‘capabilities.’
Require the owners and operators of infrastructure systems develop ALARP risks . . . a safety ‘culture’ (shared beliefs, values, feelings, resource allocation processes) . . . with a top-down and bottom-up management ‘commitment’ to deliver properly qualified infrastructure systems.
Require local, state, and federal regulatory agencies monitor the owner and operators developments to assure the affected public (including environmental quality representatives) that the desired ‘culture’ is being properly developed and maintained.
Assure that the 5 C’s of infrastructure risk management are properly developed and maintained: Cognizance, Capabilities, Culture, Commitment, and Counting.
Employ an effective Technology Delivery System (TDS) for infrastructure Risk Management that will engage 4 major components: 1) the affected public, 2) environmental quality representatives, 3) commerce and industry representatives, and 4) government representatives.