The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Transforming Our Vulnerable Water Infrastructure

April 19th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Water

rhysBy Rhys Roth, Director, Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

Face it: Most of us take water infrastructure for granted.

When we shower, flush, turn on the tap, or dodge the rain, we rarely give a second thought to the vast network of pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities that lie behind the water tap, the toilet, and the drains in our home and on the street.

But clean water is essential to every person’s life – to drink, bathe, cook, and clean. It’s also vital for every community to thrive. Water infrastructure not only supplies clean, on-demand water, it also protects us against infectious disease, toxic exposure, and destruction of home, business, and property from flood or fire.

In America as a whole, and where I live in the Pacific Northwest, much of our water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is old, at risk for breakdowns, and vulnerable to threats including earthquakes and climate extremes.

It’s time to pay attention and get to work.

Fortunately, a history-making revolution in the water sector is brewing. And I believe the Pacific Northwest can lead the way in developing cost-effective, integrated systems to supply, purify, and manage water that are among the most sustainable and resilient in the world.

A new report, A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure: Innovative Pathways, Smarter Spending, Better Outcomes, shows how.

This new report, released this month, by The Evergreen State College’s Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, which I wrote in collaboration with 50 industry experts spanning water supply, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, is the first attempt to construct a regional shared vision for the future of water infrastructure in the Northwest.

It starts with region’s water utilities adopting new investment practices, guided by long-range vision and strategy. Northwest utilities spend several billion dollars each year to maintain, operate and modernize water infrastructure. The multi-billion dollar question: How do we generate the most long-term community value from these investments? 

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure comprehensively overviews the wide-ranging and unprecedented challenges facing the region’s water utilities, and highlights innovative solutions being pioneered by both big and small communities on the West Coast.

The report also paints a picture of how the region can develop cost-effective, integrated, sustainable, and resilient water systems. To achieve that goal, investment strategies will be required that break down silos within the water sector and build new partnerships beyond it.

Current water infrastructure spending totals well north of $3 billion a year in Washington and Oregon, but existing funds are unlikely to be enough to replace the vast network of aged pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities originally installed 40 years and more ago. Many assets are nearing or beyond their expected lifespan, leading to roughly 240,000 water main breaks and between 23,000 and 75,000 sanitary sewage overflows per year in the United States,” the National Infrastructure Advisory Council says. NIAC puts the investment gap at $400 billion to $1 trillion nationwide.

Meanwhile, climate disruption is changing rainfall and water supply assumptions on which long-term investment decisions are made. Northwest utilities face the rather frightening added challenge of earthquakes that could cut off vital water services for weeks.

On the other hand, a new portfolio of water infrastructure solutions is opening exciting new opportunities for innovation. Many of these new approaches can save money for the local utility, and also offer multiple benefits for resilience, health, environment, prosperity, and community. Among changes the report overviews are:

  • “Net water positive” buildings that capture, treat and recycle water on site
  • Green infrastructure investments, from rain gardens, street bioswales, and engineered wetlands, to broader watershed restoration measures
  • Smart devices diffused throughout systems that provide managers with new tools to control flows and gain efficiencies.

A Northwest Vision for 2040 Water Infrastructure highlights a wide range of leadership examples, such as Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, which saved $63 million on a sewer overhaul project with green infrastructure, much of it on customer properties. The small rural community of Orting, Washington – facing an urgent need to replace aging dikes and levees – developed a cost-effective strategy to restore natural river flow and wetlands, resulting in not only improved flood protection, but better habitat for salmon, and new green space and recreational trails for the community.

The report also recommends cost-sharing agreements that leverage multiple interests in green infrastructure, from water to recreation, wildlife and health. The report points to a leading example, Clean Water Services (CWS) of Hillsboro, Oregon. CWS averted a $60-$150 million treatment plant investment, plus $6 million in annual operating costs, with a streamside restoration investment, which cost only $4.3 million by 2007, while drawing millions more from state and federal partners with water and wildlife interests.

The time is now for a profound rethink of our water-related infrastructure investments. Look for 2-3 more posts from me on transforming water infrastructure investment over the next few weeks, highlighting key findings from our new report!


LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Deschutes Valley Park and Reclaimed Water Tank Project

The Evergreen State College has created the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) to champion a new infrastructure investment paradigm by centering on long-range strategic foresight, new decision tools, and integration across systems for broadly-shared, long-term community value. This is the third in a series of six reports CSI is producing to comprehensively detail an overall 25-year vision and pathway for Northwest infrastructure investment.

To learn more, visit, follow CSI’s blog, sign up for CSI’s email newsletter, and attend one of the following upcoming events.


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