ASCE’s 2021 Report Card Marks the US Infrastructure Progress
ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure , released on March 3, gives the nation’s infrastructure its highest overall grade since the Society began issuing its quadrennial assessments in the late 1990s.
Change rarely happens overnight in the world of traditional infrastructure, where such assets as a bridge, a dam, or a drinking water treatment plant are often designed and constructed to last decades. Although ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure , released on March 3, signals a gradual move forward for the nation’s infrastructure water infrastructure remains poor.
Prepared by the Society every four years as a means of assessing the overall condition of civil infrastructure nationwide, the 2021 report card accords America’s infrastructure an overall cumulative grade of C–.
Prepared by ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure, the latest report card represents modest improvement as compared to the grade of D+ that was assigned in both the 2017 and 2013 report cards. By comparison, the 2009 and 2005 report cards each issued an overall grade of D, which amounted to a decline from the D+ of the 2001 report card. As for the 1998 report card, it provided an overall grade of D.
Of the 16 existing individual infrastructure categories assessed as part of the 2021 report card, five sectors — aviation, drinking water, energy, inland waterways, and ports — improved. However, 10 categories remained unchanged, while one — bridges — went down slightly. Stormwater, included in the 2021 report card for the first time as a stand-alone category, debuted with a grade of D.
“We have positive news out of this,” Swallow says. “The grades are improving where we see investment. Some of the policy areas are also helping with the grade improvement. But we need to continue that effort in order to really start to see the impact that we’re hoping to see, which is better infrastructure for all Americans.”
Drinking water: Grade C-
As a category, drinking water advanced from a D in 2017 to a C- in the latest report card. The improvement reflects the “tremendous strides” that the drinking water sector has made during the past four years, says Gregory DiLoreto, P.E., P.L.S., D.WRE, Pres.13.ASCE, the chair emeritus of the CAI.
Chief among the improvements is a big uptick in the pace at which water agencies are replacing their existing waterlines. In researching its 2017 report card, the CAI found that water utilities, on average, were replacing waterlines at a rate of 0.5 percent per year. However, that replacement rate has increased significantly in the last four years, ranging from an average of 1.5 to 4.8 percent, depending on the utility, DiLoreto says. “Overall, the industry has increased its replacement rate by more than three times to [nearly] 10 times,” he notes.
The growth in the rate of pipeline replacements helps explain another encouraging sign, the flat rate at which water main breaks are occurring. Each year in the United States, approximately 240,000 water main breaks occur. Although this figure clearly needs to come down, “the good news is that that number has remained constant over the past seven years,” DiLoreto says.
“As you sustain that investment, the grade will start going up because you’ll have fewer waterline breaks. You’ll have a more reliable system.”Gregory DiLoreto, P.E., P.L.S., D.WRE, Pres.13.ASCE
In other encouraging news, a growing number of drinking water providers are taking steps to ensure that they manage their infrastructure assets as optimally as possible. “Today, 29 percent of utilities have asset management plans,” DiLoreto says. “That’s up from only 20 percent in our last report card.” More encouragingly, “another 55 percent of utilities are developing them.”
Ultimately, the drinking water sector exemplifies what can be achieved when funding is made available and spent wisely. Since the 2017 report card, U.S. water agencies have raised their rates by an average of 30 percent, DiLoreto says. “Where investments have been made, the grades have risen,” he notes. “It’s a very simple correlation.”
Maintaining funding is the only way to ensure that the drinking water category continues to improve, even in the face of such pressing issues as the rise in emerging contaminants, DiLoreto says. “There’s got to be sustained investment,” he notes. “As you sustain that investment, the grade will start going up because you’ll have fewer waterline breaks. You’ll have a more reliable system, and a more reliable system translates into improvements in our economy and our quality of life.”
Inland waterways : Grade D+
Increased funding helped the inland waterways category improve from a grade of D in 2017 to a D+ in 2021, says Ruwanka Purasinghe, EIT, A.M.ASCE, a CAI member and a civil engineering associate for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s also still a D+,” Purasinghe says. “We still have a way to go.”
The inland waterways system continues to benefit from the decision by Congress in 2014 to raise the barge fuel tax that funds the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which is used to help pay for construction and major rehabilitation. (Normally, 50 percent of federal funding for construction and major rehabilitation of inland waterways comes from the general fund, with the other 50 percent coming from the IWTF.) “That’s one item that’s had a role (in the improved grade),” Purasinghe says. “We’re seeing some results from that.”
For example, the rate at which unscheduled lock closures is occurring on the inland waterway system has gone down significantly in recent years. Between 2010 and 2014, such closures amounted to about 18,000 hours, Purasinghe says. By comparison, this number declined to about 5,000 hours from 2015 to 2019. Although the hours of unscheduled lock closures remain too high, the trend is positive, Purasinghe notes. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he says.
The 2018 completion of the $3 billion Olmsted Locks and Dam on the Ohio River at Olmsted, Illinois, also helped boost the grade for the inland waterways category, Purasinghe says. “That was the biggest thing for us,” he says. Comprising two new locks and a dam, the massive project replaced two aging locks that could no longer accommodate modern barges. More broadly, the completion of the Olmsted project had a positive effect on the financial state of the IWTF, freeing up available funding for other waterways projects.
The $8.2-billion backlog of Corps projects that Congress has authorized but not funded is “a huge amount. As time goes on, these projects will cost a lot more to get to.”Ruwanka Purasinghe, EIT, A.M.ASCE
To speed up completion of the long-delayed Olmsted project, Congress ultimately used general funds to pay for about 85 percent of the cost. (See “Delivering Olmsted Locks and Dam,” Civil Engineering , June 2019, pages 74-79.) The move was deemed necessary because annual inflows to the IWTF were too small to permit the large spending increases needed to facilitate faster project completion. As a result, the project was finished four years earlier than planned, improving efficiency and reliability along a key navigational route.
However, major challenges loom for the inland waterways sector, exacerbated by funding shortages. Chief among these is the $8.2-billion backlog of Corps projects that Congress has authorized but not funded. “It’s a huge amount,” Purasinghe says. Meanwhile, operations and maintenance activities of the Corps face a $2.7 billion backlog. “As time goes on, these projects will cost a lot more to get to,” he says.
Stormwater: Grade D
Following the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, regulatory efforts pertaining to clean water focused mainly on point sources of pollution. As those efforts have matured, the regulatory focus has grown to include nonpoint sources of pollution, particularly stormwater. As increasing development creates more impervious surfaces, the increased runoff means more flooding, especially in urban areas, and more pollutants entering streams and rivers. In fact, for many waterways in the United States, stormwater represents the only growing source of pollution.
Before the release of the 2017 report card, ASCE had fielded requests from stakeholders asking for stormwater to receive its own grade rather than simply being included as part of the wastewater category. “The problem was that we didn’t have any data to do a separate stormwater category,” DiLoreto says. “Without data, we can’t develop a grade.”
Even in the absence of sufficient national data on the stormwater sector, the CAI “recognized that stormwater was being treated as a utility by many municipalities,” DiLoreto says. “Stormwater is an issue in every urban development throughout the entire country. It clearly is a category that represents important infrastructure in America when you consider that we all are affected by stormwater.”
Acknowledging the importance of stormwater as a unique sector, ASCE announced in July 2019 that it would include stormwater as a separate category in the 2021 report card. The decision followed the release in May 2019 of the results of the first-ever study of U.S. stormwater needs, which was conducted by the Water Environment Federation Stormwater Institute with the assistance of the National Municipal Stormwater Alliance. Based on a survey of more than 600 municipal separate storm sewer system permittees, the study provided a host of data, while also estimating that the U.S. stormwater sector has an approximate annual funding gap of $7.5 billion. Thanks in part to data from the survey, the CAI was able to develop a grade for the stormwater category, DiLoreto says.
ASCE’s recognition of stormwater as an industry in its own right is a “big move forward” for the sector, says James Houle, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, the director of the UNH Stormwater Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Historically, stormwater and its attendant infrastructure have been the (stepchildren) of the utility industry,” Houle says. “Stormwater has been treated largely as an afterthought.” As a result, the stormwater sector has had to make do with significantly less funding relative to other, more prominent utilities. The biggest challenge facing the industry, Houle says, is that it is “living in a legacy of neglect.”
“Historically, stormwater and its attendant infrastructure have been the (stepchildren) of the utility industry. Stormwater has been treated largely as an afterthought.”James Houle, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE
This neglect is reflected squarely in the D grade assigned to stormwater in the 2021 report card. The low mark resulted mainly from “two major factors,” says Darren Olson, P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE, a vice president for Christopher B. Burke Engineering Ltd. and a co-vice chair of the CAI. The first factor is the age of much of the existing stormwater management infrastructure across the country. “So much of the stormwater management system is old and was really not designed to any particular standard,” Olson says. The second factor concerns ongoing “precipitation patterns of increasing rainfall trends,” he says.
The combination of aging, often inadequately designed stormwater management systems and rainfall volumes that are increasing over time has resulted in a “service gap that is getting greater and greater,” Olson says. Such a gap accounts for the increase in urban flooding and the decrease in water quality in many streams, he maintains. “In my mind, (this gap) is really what the critical issue has become,” Olson says.
Unfortunately, the annual gap in stormwater funding is even greater than the $7.5 billion identified in the 2019 study from WEF’s Stormwater Institute, Olson says. The study concerned only compliance costs associated with stormwater regulations, he notes. “That doesn’t begin to address urban flooding,” Olson says. “That’s a really important distinction. … There is a whole separate needs assessment that would need to be done to begin to have these older communities handle urban flooding.”
To begin to close the gaps in service and funding that pervade stormwater systems today, communities and governments at all levels need to pay more attention to stormwater infrastructure, Olson says. “The average person or elected official doesn’t give much thought to stormwater systems until something goes wrong,” he says.
“So much of the stormwater management system is old and was really not designed to any particular standard. … There is a whole separate needs assessment that would need to be done to begin to have these older communities handle urban flooding.”Darren Olson, P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
The first step, according to Olson, entails recognition of stormwater infrastructure and its importance in safeguarding water quality and protecting against flooding. The second step involves assessments of existing stormwater management systems. Building on the previous two steps, the third step will require “targeted investment from federal sources and generated by local stormwater utilities, based on an engineering analysis of the data that we have,” Olson says. “Those three steps, I think, get us to improvement of our stormwater systems.”
How stormwater infrastructure is funded can play a big role in the attention that it receives from the public and elected officials, says Rebecca Shelton, P.E., F.ASCE, the assistant director of the Department of Water Resources for Gwinnett County, Georgia, and a co-vice chair of the CAI. If funded by tax dollars, stormwater infrastructure is forced to compete with such other local priorities as parks, police, and fire protection. “Stormwater is not nearly as exciting as those other areas,” Shelton says.
To alleviate this problem, an increasing number of communities are turning to the use of stormwater utilities funded by fees that are typically based on property size, amount of impervious area, or other site-specific characteristics. Such an approach provides a “dedicated funding source for stormwater infrastructure,” Shelton says, ensuring that such infrastructure is more likely to receive necessary upgrades. In 2018, 26 percent of communities with municipal separate storm-sewer systems had either created stormwater utilities or imposed fees related to stormwater, Shelton notes, up from about 19 percent in 2013.
Only as more communities begin to contend with their stormwater challenges is the scope of the problem beginning to come into focus. “There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done in stormwater,” Shelton says. “It’s an area that’s really critical at the local level but does not receive much attention at the national level.”
As an example, Shelton notes that stormwater is a subset of the Clean Watersheds Needs Survey, a report prepared every four years by the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate the capital investments necessary to address the water quality objectives of the Clean Water Act. “Because (stormwater) is a subset, it just doesn’t get the focus,” Shelton says. In turn, the “vast majority” of funding provided by the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund program goes toward infrastructure for wastewater treatment rather than stormwater management, she says.
“There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done in stormwater. It’s an area that’s really critical at the local level but does not receive much attention at the national level.”Rebecca Shelton, P.E., F.ASCE
On the bright side, the traditional mindset that viewed stormwater as a waste product to be disposed of as quickly as possible has largely been replaced by a more comprehensive approach, Houle says. Both through regulation and practice, municipalities are increasingly encouraging and employing tactics that “manage water at the source and water as a resource,” he says. “They’re changing the way that they manage this resource,” Houle notes. “That’s a great sign, and it’s the start of something really promising.”
Along these lines, more communities are adopting a “one water approach” to stormwater management that encompasses such concerns as water supply, flood resiliency, and even sea-level rise, says Rosey Jencks, a vice president and national technical leader for stormwater, resiliency, and green infrastructure at the consulting engineering firm Brown and Caldwell. Taking a broader approach can not only improve projects but can also “increase opportunities for cost sharing and agency partnerships,” Jencks says.
By integrating stormwater management efforts with other infrastructure capital projects, municipalities can achieve multiple benefits beyond simply reducing runoff and improving water quality, Jencks says. For example, adding green infrastructure components to any project that involves construction within a roadway or its right of way is a “great way of conferring a whole lot of benefits — including traffic calming, urban cooling, and flood resiliency — while bringing water quality improvements,” Jencks says.
Adding green infrastructure to any project that involves construction within a roadway or its right of way is a “great way of conferring a whole lot of benefits — including traffic calming, urban cooling, and flood resiliency — while bringing water quality improvements.”Rosey Jencks
In terms of stormwater best management practices, green infrastructure has come into its own as a force to be reckoned with, says Jeff Herr, P.E., D.WRE, the national stormwater leader for Brown and Caldwell. “There’s a tremendous growing interest in green infrastructure,” he says. Such green infrastructure elements as permeable pavement, bioretention swales, and sidewalk planters are increasingly being used, particularly as parts of retrofit projects, Herr says. (ASCE recently completed several such projects within the parking lot of its Reston, Virginia, headquarters.)
“Using low-impact development practices, we can design land development so that it does not contribute more (stormwater) pollutant loadings after development.”Jeff Herr, P.E., D.WRE
Designed to minimize stormwater runoff and manage it as close to the source as possible, low-impact development methods can be used to negate harmful effects associated with runoff from development, Herr notes. Those improvements can affect both quality and quantity. “Using low-impact development practices, we can design land development so that it does not contribute more pollutant loadings after development,” he says.
Additional technological developments benefiting the stormwater sector include advances in real-time hydrologic and water quality monitoring and active controls for stormwater infrastructure that lead to improved performance, Herr says.
Investment pays off
As the previous examples have shown, funding is not the only factor that determines how well individual infrastructure categories perform, but it certainly makes a notable difference. “We know that if we want the grades to go up, we must invest in the infrastructure,” Swallow says.
The modest improvement in the state of public works during the past four years is the result of a national “down payment” on infrastructure, Swallow says. “We put that first investment in there, and as a result, we’re beginning to see a shift in the grade in the right direction.”
But much remains to be done, she emphasizes. “If we could get that same level of investment into all the categories and really encourage the federal government to meet us at the table, that’s where we’ll really see the positive change that we know is attainable,” she says. “That’s where we’ll really see our infrastructure improve to the point at which it truly meets the needs of all Americans.”