Cities across the country are facing crippling water infrastructure replacement costs, which are exacerbated by regulations requiring them to use outdated materials and technologies. By adopting performance-based standards, cities can save money by picking better pipe materials or installing green infrastructure.

Top Points

  • Drinking water infrastructure in the United States was largely built in tandem with a few major historical population booms, and most of that infrastructure is coming to end-of-life at the same time so ours is the first American generation to face significant water infrastructure replacement costs.
  • The pipes themselves make up 60 percent of the cost of water infrastructure.
  • Local governments can be required to replace pipes with the exact same material, regardless of improvements in materials or cost-effectiveness.
  • PVC pipe can be 30-70 percent cheaper than ductile iron, while ductile iron can handle higher pressures and ranges of temperature.
  • Green infrastructure can save cities money by intercepting storm water and infiltrating it in place, preventing it from ever getting into the municipal system.


According to the EPA, over the next 20 years, the United States faces hundreds of billions of dollars in water infrastructure liabilities. Local governments across the country are grappling with the challenge of responding to ongoing water main breaks while simultaneously making the long-term investments that are necessary to sustain their systems going forward. These contradictory fiscal pressures are further exacerbated by the need for many of these localities to make expensive upgrades that separate combined sewer-storm water overflow systems to comply with the Clean Water Act. As governments and utilities engage this challenge, there is a significant need for creative cost-containment strategies that can make each dollar stretch further.

Unfortunately, even though the need for savings is growing ever greater, many decision-makers are bound by legacy statutes and rules that encourage or even require inefficient water infrastructure investments. However, by systematically introducing competitive infrastructure policies that are performance oriented and open to innovation—rather than narrowly tailored to the specifications of past practices—governments can mitigate their unfunded liabilities while continuing to deliver effective and reliable water services.


Image credit: karanpon pariwuthiphong