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Urban Water Summit: Mayors Discuss Water Infrastructure Asset Management

By Rich Anderson
April 15, 2002

Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, Trenton (NJ) and Mayor Bob Young, Augusta (GA), Co'Chairmen of the Urban Water Council convened the Urban Water Summit in Miami Beach, April 5th.

Discussion on Asset Management

V. Kenneth Harlow, Director of Management Services for Brown and Caldwell, commented on optimizing water infrastructure assets' useful lifetime. Remarking that much of the currently existing water infrastructure was essentially free, it is now getting old and very expensive to refurbish or replace. This is especially the case in regard to the sub'surface pipes, the "hidden treasure," according to Harlow.

Harlow emphasized that regulatory requirements and GASB 34 (General Accounting Standards Board) will drive cities and others in control of water infrastructure assets to move toward a rate structure that will adequately recover the necessary system replacement funds. Harlow said that embracing asset management principles is not a choice, but a competitive strategy.

An example cited was the efforts of Kansas City officials to impose an asset management plan. Part of the Kansas City plan was to assess the current state of the water and sewer system, and then make estimates of what it would take to refurbish the systems. The water and sewer system serves a population of 400,000. Total system replacement costs were estimated to be around $1.6 billion. Capital assets would require around $30 million a year of reinvestment.

Harlow indicated that the Kansas City example may be typical of what large urban centers can expect when they examine their aging water and sewer systems. He noted that replacement costs are cyclical because the initial infrastructure investments are cyclical.

The advice Harlow offered to the mayors is to adopt a management cycle approach. This four step process starts with a plan that involves a review of current infrastructure, followed by a direction of investment for replacement. The next step is to measure the effect of the replacement investment: Did it achieve the objective? Then the process involves a control step that modifies the investment of capital based on how well the objectives are achieved.

Synagro Technologies President of Operations Division Randall Tuttle advised the mayors to not only employ asset management planning, but to do so wisely by seeking out operational benefits. Historically, water and sewer plants perform basic functions well, but they also produce air and water emissions, and solid waste streams. These byproducts of operations can quickly turn into public nuisances if they are not handled properly. Tuttle suggested that while some of these emissions need to be dealt with through end'of'pipe solutions, there are ways to not only reduce or prevent such pollutant potential, but plant also maintain or increase efficiency.

One example presented by Tuttle described the back'end of the wastewater treatment plant involving effluent discharge and solids handling. Sludge solids that are treated are called biosolids, and they have long been recycled as agricultural fertilizers. When the sludges go through the plant they are temporarily stored in digesters or tanks. Not only does a poorly maintained digester/tank limit plant efficiency, it also is a fundamental cause of odor generation. Routine digester/tank cleaning can eliminate or minimize odors, perhaps the single most common complaint from the public.

A poorly maintained digester/tank has a serious impact on the quality of a system and overall plant performance, efficiency, reliability, and cost. Tuttle pointed out that digesters get plugged and loose 25 percent, 50 percent or more of their throughput capacity. The "plugging" results in reduced hydraulic performance. Irregular digester cleaning usually results in rather huge capital spending for replacement. The concept of asset management, practiced on a regular basis, suggests that routine cleaning will not only help plant performance and availability, but will also translate high capital replacement costs into minimal and predictable maintenance costs.

Tuttle suggested preventive maintenance. One of the biggest problems wastewater treatment operators deal with is system corrosion. It is responsible for accelerated infrastructure degradation. Yet, there are few preventive programs employed by system operators. Tuttle identified an inexpensive and readily available coating chemical/magnesium hydroxide, that can be used systemwide to prevent equipment corrosion. The solution does not create environmentally harmful effects and can eliminate or drastically reduce generation of hydrogen sulfide, the gas responsible for odors the public complains about.

Jim Hanlon, EPA's Director of the Office of Wastewater, joined the panel. He confirmed EPA's commitment to asset management as a useful tool. He also made the link between asset maintenance and protection of water quality. He also made the point that a good asset management plan would be essential in the future because the need for infrastructure investment will far outstrip the ability of government at all levels to make the necessary investments.

Hanlon passed around a new publication dedicated to a comprehensive discussion of asset management for publicly owned wastewater treatment plants. The report entitled Managing Public Infrastructure Assets To Minimize Cost and Maximize Performance was produced by a number of well respected water professional groups, and is available through the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. Hanlon gave this report a very good review, and he advised the mayors to obtain a copy and employ its suggestions into their asset management plans.

Mayor Young asked Hanlon about the asset management provisions in the new water legislation proposed in Congress. He asked what level of federal involvement should be expected in the future, and how EPA plans to monitor city performance via the asset management plans.

Hanlon confirmed that EPA supports tying asset management as a condition of getting State Revolving Fund loans. He said that the Agency did not have a lot of specific requirements in mind, but that the states would have to deal with them. He also said that he did not know what level of EPA monitoring of "acceptable" asset management plans might be. He did, however, agree that the Agency would like to work with cities to work out the details.