How does water infrastructure affect public health?

There’s no question that water is Earth’s most essential resource—as a society, we use it for tasks both mundane and extraordinary every day.

At Aqua, we understand and value the importance of monitoring and repairing the systems responsible for bringing us that water. When infrastructure is outdated or damaged, it can cause problems that extend far beyond individual home plumbing systems.

We caught up with Vice President and Chief Environmental Officer Chris Crockett to better understand why Aqua’s determination to rebuild and repair our nation’s water infrastructure isn’t just important—it’s essential in order to maintain public health.

How your water travels to you matters—a lot.

It might seem like water simply rushes out of the tap, but its journey from the well or water treatment plant to your area is longer than you’d think. It’s possible that water has traveled many miles to reach your home, or maybe it was waiting to be released from a storage tank. This time spent traveling or sitting is called water age, and it can cause some less-than-ideal changes to the water.

“The longer the water sits in the pipes or tanks, the more things can happen to change its quality,” Crockett explains. “For example, the chlorine in the water will slowly degrade, and if it’s there too long, the chlorine can actually disappear.”

Though chlorine makes many people think of pool water (yuck), you’ll remember from our water purification blog that the proper amount needs to be present to keep your water safe for drinking. If pipes are outdated or rusty, the quality and safeness of the water can suffer. Without the presence of chlorine, bacteria and viruses can breed in the water supply, and that’s where things can go wrong.

Out with the old—especially pipes.

Pipes make up most of our water infrastructure systems, which makes their physical integrity of the utmost importance.

“Old, corroding pipes can grow a biofilm of bacteria that lives in the rust and can reduce the chlorine levels in the water as it sits in the pipe,” says Crockett. Not only do these biofilms eat away at pipes, but they also can give the water a slight unpleasant odor or taste.

Pipe problems don’t stop there. Crockett adds that “leaking pipes not only let water leak out, but under very specific conditions of low pressure could let water outside the pipe leak in, introducing contamination and dirt.”

According to a report from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), most of America’s drinking water distribution system is more than 50 years old. Although this infrastructure was built to last, Aqua is determined to stay ahead of deterioration to protect our customers’ water supplies.

Where does public health come in?

Water traveling through compromised (or just plain out-of-date) infrastructure can be contaminated through intrusion, corrosion, biofilms, sediment, water age, or any combination of these factors.

According to the AWWA report, a 2006 national estimate attributed nearly 50 percent of the risk of contracting a waterborne illness to distribution systems. As the AWWA puts it, there are three main concerns when it comes to understanding and tracking how water infrastructure can impact public health:

Chart via AWWA (Figure 3)

Using these three pillars, it’s easy to understand that poor infrastructure conditions can make water susceptible to more contaminants, which can affect public health through consumption and use of compromised water.

Although that’s a mouthful (and can sound concerning), allow us to give you peace of mind: Aqua is one step ahead of the game.

How, exactly?

Upgrading water infrastructure is no small task, but we know the benefits are worth it. By now, you understand the impact that outdated systems can have on your everyday life, but rest assured that Aqua takes plenty of action to keep your water safe and reliable.

According to Crockett, in addition to using sophisticated computer programs to monitor the state of the system, replacing old pipes, and flushing newer pipes with chemicals to keep them from corroding, Aqua also has plenty of boots on the ground.

“We conduct extensive flushing exercises,” he explains. “We go out in areas that may need help moving the water, and we flush it via hydrants to get out the rust and bring in fresh water.”

If you keep an eye out, you might even see members of our team in your area flushing hydrants. It’s one simple step that we can take to continue our mission to protect and provide Earth’s most essential resource.

Stay tuned for another year of exploration and education throughout our Aquastructure blog series. See you next month!

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Aqua America’s role in our nation’s infrastructure renewal

When it comes to water and wastewater infrastructure, the reality is that the United States has more than one million miles of underground pipe, much of which is nearly a century old and in dire need of replacement.

According to the American Water Works Association, it will cost an estimated $1 trillion to maintain and expand drinking water service to meet demands over the next 20 years. There is no question that upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure is a major challenge facing our country, and Aqua is proud to be leading the charge when it comes to offering a viable solution. In 2017 alone, Aqua invested $478 million in water and wastewater infrastructure.

Most importantly, our investment has had a direct impact on the communities we serve across our eight-state footprint, including:

  • University Park, Illinois, where we were able to significantly improve water quality with a 14-mile pipeline project
  • Lakes of Mission Grove, Texas, which lacked its own wastewater plant
  • Southeastern Pennsylvania, where main breaks were reduced by 70 percent following significant infrastructure investments

Expertise and persistence delivers for Illinois residents and businesses 

Residents and businesses of University Park, Illinois were served by a water source that contained high levels of iron, calcium and magnesium, creating taste and hardness issues. Many relied on water softeners and filters to reduce hardness. The well source was simply not good, leaving Aqua Illinois with a complicated problem.

Aqua Illinois conducted a feasibility study to explore a set of potential solutions including running a pipeline from a better water source to University Park. Extending the pipeline would be complex, both physically and financially, requiring Aqua Illinois to navigate jurisdiction issues, obtain easements and design around waterways and farm fields. The 14 miles of new pipeline runs from Aqua Illinois’ award-winning Kankakee plant to its customers in University Park.

Both residents and businesses benefit from this expansive project. University Park customers have seen a 90 percent reduction in iron and a 70 percent reduction in hardness. The pipeline project also increased water capacity, which is attracting new economic development to the area.

New Texas wastewater plant increases capacity five-fold

When Aqua Texas acquired the Lakes of Mission Grove system, the community’s population was so low that the volume of wastewater produced couldn’t sustain its own treatment plant. This required Aqua Texas to haul wastewater to a treatment plant each day.

When the community’s population started to rapidly grow, Aqua was able to plan for a new wastewater treatment plant that could serve current residents and new families to come. Aqua Texas began the bidding process for the engineering of what would become a $1.2 million plant to serve the residents. 

The project dramatically increased capacity to 135,000 gallons of wastewater per day and an ability to serve an additional 500 homes. The efficient new plant provides significant operational savings and increased environmental benefits.

Renewed infrastructure benefits customers and the environment

Aqua Pennsylvania owns and is responsible for 5,800 miles of pipe—varying in size, type and age—in 32 counties. Much of this water infrastructure is approaching the end of its useful life cycle, making it susceptible to main breaks, service interruptions, water discoloration and customer dissatisfaction.

In 2017 alone, Aqua Pennsylvania completed nearly 200 projects, replacing 135 miles of main with an investment of $141 million. Over the life of the main replacement program, Aqua Pennsylvania has replaced more than 1,700 miles of pipe with an investment of $1.4 billion.

When the program started, the pipes were on a 900-year replacement cycle. Today, that number has been significantly reduced to a 90-year replacement cycle. The benefits of the main replacement program have been most dramatic in its southeastern division, which is the largest with 4,600 miles of main that serve one million people. Main breaks there have been reduced by 70 percent to an all-time low of eight breaks per 100 miles of pipe, per year, and customer complaints have fallen by 59 percent.

Looking back on these achievements from 2017 excites us to reflect similarly on 2018 as we close out the year. Stay tuned to the Aqua blog in 2019 to explore our continued efforts to make infrastructure improvements across the nation.

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What does it take to acquire and upgrade a water system?

 

Let’s be frank: Operating and maintaining water systems is not an easy task, especially when they need tons of infrastructural improvements.  

Earlier in our Aquastructure blog series, we shed a bit of light on the state of our nation’s water infrastructure and pointed out that most of the pipelines we depend on each and every day were built at the start of the 20thcentury. In the present day, all of that infrastructure is near the end of its life, which means that upkeep and updates are a pressing need. 

Considering those challenges, how does a company like Aqua continue to provide efficient and affordable service? It all comes down to the water systems Aqua acquires, along with regular updates to existing infrastructure.

Craig Blanchette, president of Aqua Illinois, checked in to give us some insight into Aqua’s acquisition and upgrade processes. 


Blanchette (third from right in sunglasses) with fellow Aqua Illinois employees during a local volunteer project.

More water, less problems

Since 1995, Aqua has acquired more than 300 water systems, most of which are from municipalities (which own 85 percent of the nation’s water systems). However, sometimes those systems come from other sources, such as smaller regulated utilities, homeowners associations, water and sewer districts, and developer-owned systems. 

As the number of water systems in Aqua’s network grows, the efficiency and affordability of its services grow, too. The theory at play here is “economies of scale,” which is the economic principle that the more goods or services can be produced at a larger scale, the higher the savings in costs.

“By adding customers, Aqua is able to spread these fixed costs over a larger customer base, alleviating much of the burden from our new and existing customers,” Blanchette explains. 

What happens if Aqua wants to acquire a new system?

When Aqua is preparing to acquire a new system, typically Aqua and the other party—whether it’s a municipality or some other organization—begin by sitting down and talking shop (think inspections and negotiations). This can take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. The goal is to create a partnership which benefits the community.

After that, an asset purchase agreement is created, which outlines all the details of the transaction, such as pricing and inclusion of assets. The APA must then be approved by the state public utility commission, which takes about six months to a year. During the PUC approval process, an administrative law judge takes on the case, and expert witnesses, like engineers, accountants and financial advisors, must evaluate and vouch for the legitimacy and benefits of the proposed acquisition. 

Once the agreement is reviewed, modified and approved by the administrative law judge it is then forwarded to the PUC for its final approval. Once this is complete, Aqua can sit down with the seller and officially take ownership.  

And then it’s smooth sailing?

With the right due diligence, yes! A lot of these existing water systems must be assessed to ensure everything is up to speed. In most cases, many of the system’s assets are underground and cannot be easily inspected.

“In these cases, we rely heavily on the maintenance records of the municipality in determining where future replacements are needed,” Blanchette notes. 

The most common upgrade is water main replacements, which are predominantly located underground and are often left out of a municipality’s investment plan. Blanchette adds that water service lines, main line valves and fire hydrants are also among the areas of a water system that may need more attention. 

“These assets are incredibly important because they are the backbone of any community,” Blanchette says. “Reliability of a water system is important in providing Earth’s most essential resource.” 

Whenever Aqua acquires a new system, they prepare a new capital investment plan to help determine where and when adjustments and updates are needed in each system’s infrastructure. Aqua then reevaluates that plan to determine future improvement needs. From that point forward, investment in the existing infrastructure is constant. 

It seems to be a team effort.

Very much so! Aqua works closely with the communities it serves and regularly meets with community members to coordinate all these infrastructure improvement projects. 

For example, if Aqua wants to do a water main or sewer replacement, they’ll first run it by the local road authority to plan resources accordingly. 

 

“If a road authority is planning to resurface a roadway where Aqua is also looking to replace a water or sewer main, it saves our customers the cost of restoring the roadway,” Blanchette explains.  

Now that is what we call synergy. 

What does this look like in your neighborhood?

Once an acquisition is complete and upgrades are underway, how does this affect the new communities Aqua serves?

View two town success stories in Manteno, IL, and Media, PA, to see how Aqua works with community leaders to ensure water quality and service to customers. 

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Shedding light on the state of U.S. water infrastructure

 

From filling up the bathtub to boiling a pot of water to watering the plants, we rely on a ton of water for our daily needs and activities. 

And because water utilities like Aqua work so hard behind the scenes to make it seamless, it can be easy to take Earth’s most essential resource for granted. However, there’s a lot more that goes into our steady and reliable water supply than meets the eye. In fact, sometimes you have to go hundreds of feet underground to see it. 

The intricacies of water infrastructure tend to be out of sight and out of mind for many of us, and we wanted to shed a bit of light on the state of all those systems. So, we talked with Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin to get the scoop on the state of water infrastructure systems across the United States. 


Aqua Chairman and CEO Chris Franklin (left), employees and board members tour an Aqua facility in Illinois.

You mentioned water infrastructure. What does that look like?

First, let’s go back in time to the beginning of the 20thcentury, which is when the U.S. started laying miles and miles of pipelines deep within the Earth (one million miles, to be exact). These are the pipes that collect water from the ground and surface sources and transport it all the way to your tap. 

The good news is that underground water pipes last up to 100 years, so this infrastructure has provided us with reliable drinking water throughout the past century. The bad news, though, is that a lot of time has passed and those pipes desperately need to be replaced. 

How desperately? 

Well, every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card on the current status of water and wastewater infrastructure across the nation. Let’s just say it wasn’t a report card you’d want to bring home to mom and dad. (Spoiler alert: the United States got a D). 

Here’s the thing: we are facing a very serious water quality challenge in the U.S. due to aging water systems, stringent drinking water and wastewater regulations, and budgetary constraints. The time to take action is now.

Tell me more about this dilemma…

According to Franklin, many aging water systems are falling behind because it’s simply too pricey for communities to upgrade or replace all those old, deteriorating pipelines. And we’re talking big bucks: according to the American Water Works Association, we need about $1 trillion over the next 20 years to get water infrastructure to where it should be. 

Most of the country’s water systems are municipally managed, and the truth of the matter is that municipalities having competing priorities for funds to improve and replace the pipes. They have to prioritize water projects with other needs like schools, police and fire departments, roadways, and bridges, which can be rather tricky. However, prolonging investment in water infrastructure improvements can have serious consequences on the safety and quality of our drinking water over time. 

“Although the challenge to the U.S. water infrastructure is less visible than other infrastructure concerns, it’s no less important,” Franklin reminds us.  


Pipes, pipes, and more pipes: Looks like infrastructure! 

What about Aqua’s water? 

“Since Aqua’s only focus is on water, Aqua customers can feel confident that we are actively updating and upgrading infrastructure to meet the needs of their families and communities,” Franklin says. 

This means new pipes, efficient treatments from the source through the plant, and sturdy storage tanks for all. Additionally, Franklin assures us that because investment in water infrastructure is a key pillar of Aqua’s business strategy, Aqua customers can continue to expect clean, safe, and reliable drinking water and wastewater services

Back to the infrastructure dilemma. There has to be a solution, right?

Thankfully, yes, and that’s where Aqua comes into play. Over the past several decades, Aqua has teamed up with and acquired many municipal and private water companies that are struggling to keep up with their water and wastewater systems and injected some much-needed capital into their aging water systems. 

Plus, when Aqua makes these infrastructure improvements, cost-effectiveness is always kept in mind. That means that we take measures like purchasing pipes in bulk and using scientific approaches to tracking main break history, pipe age and more to ensure that rate increases are kept to a minimum for the benefit of our customers.  

 Our board looks forward to any opportunity to learn more about Aqua’s infrastructure systems.

In just 2017 alone, Aqua invested a ton of money (as in more than $450 million) in water and wastewater infrastructure, and since 2007, Aqua has acquired (and drastically improved) 174 water and wastewater systems. Looking forward, you can expect Aqua to play a leading role in fixing up many of these deteriorating water systems. 

“Aqua is committed to renewing and improving water and wastewater infrastructure through thoughtful and continuous capital investment,” Franklin adds.

 The next time you take a sip of water or wash your hands in the sink, try to remember all the hard-working Aqua team members that are dedicated every day to bring you clean and safe water. See you back here next month, where we’ll reveal the best kept secret to safe, reliable drinking water.  

 

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Save Water (and Cash) with the Ultimate Leak-Fixing Guide

 

 Drip drip drip.

Leaky faucets can be annoying, expensive and bad for the environment. It is the EPA’s 10th annual Fix a Leak Week, and we’re taking the opportunity to encourage everyone to ensure that the pesky drip-drip-dripping is out of our lives for good.

What’s the big deal with leaks?

Here are just a few facts from the EPA to get you thinking about the implications of a leaky faucet or toilet:

  1. The average household can leak more than 10,000 gallons of water every year.
  2. A single leaky faucet can waste 3,000 gallons of water per year.
  3. Nationwide, we waste one trillion gallons of water per year. (Psst: that’s the amount of water used by 11 million homes in one year.)
  4. Fixing leaks can save up to 10 percent on water bills. 

How do I know if I have a leak?

There are a few simple ways to identify whether or not you have a leak in your home:

  1. Check your water bill. Is it noticeably higher than other months? If so, has your usage changed drastically? If not, you may have a leak.
  2. Turn off your water and note the gallons used on the water meter. Wait 20 to 30 minutes and compare. If there has been an increase in the water used, it’s safe to assume that there is a leak.

(via giphy)

When is it my job to fix a leak?

Knowing when a leak is your responsibility versus our responsibility is a common question, so don’t feel alone.

Field Supervisor James Watson of Aqua Ohio is here to help clarify. “Aqua is responsible for maintaining and repairing all water-mains, valves and hydrants in the water distribution system, as well as the company-owned portion of residential service connections,” he said.

If you have identified a major leak that you think is our responsibility to fix, make sure to get in contact with us. If the leak doesn’t fall into the categories mentioned by Watson, though, then it is most likely the responsibility of the homeowner. One thing to keep in mind is that homeowners are responsible for maintaining the residential service line and the easement lines that enter their homes.

Otherwise, a general rule of thumb is that if the leak is within your home, it’s your responsibility. Things like boilers, hot water tanks, internal pressure pumps, faucets and toilets are all the responsibility of the property owner. One exception is your water meter—but only if it is housed within the residence. Luckily, fixing most of these leak areas is a fairly simple process.  

How do I find the leak?

Toilets and faucets are the most common places for there to be leaks, so it could be helpful to check them first.

Faucet issues are easy to identify; if you see or hear them dripping, you’ve got a leak. Toilets, on the other hand, are a little bit more difficult. An easy way to check for a leaky toilet is with food dye:

  1. Drop the food dye into the toilet tank.
  2. Wait 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. If the dye has made its way from the tank to the toilet itself, there is a leak.

If you’re really having trouble identifying a leak, check out our step-by-step guide to detecting these issues.

I found the leak, but I don’t know how to fix it.

If your faucet is the problem, it most likely requires you to replace a washer. This process is very simple, and if you’re comfortable with using some fairly basic tools, it won’t be an issue at all. Check out this helpful walkthrough from HowCast:

Toilets are a bit more complicated, so watch this video from Home Repair Tutor for tips on fixing one of the most common toilet leakage issues:

 

Of course, if you are feeling uncomfortable completing any of these tasks, or if you have a leak that you are unsure how to fix on your own, make sure to call your local plumber.

We want everyone to be aware of their water usage and how they can fix leaks. Join us in identifying and fixing a leak this week to cut down on the trillions of gallons of water that we waste every year. 

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