As water infrastructure deteriorates, many municipalities may soon face the same problems as Jackson
The American Water Works Association has dubbed our time the “Replacement Era” because a century’s worth of pipe and water infrastructure all over the nation is expected to become unusable within approximately two decades. With astronomical replacement costs, much of the drinking water pipe underground, and treatment plants placed out of sight and out of mind, the Replacement Era can seem faraway and unreal. That is, until it becomes very real and very local, as it has in Jackson, Mississippi, a city of 160,000.
This month, the city’s main water treatment plants may have become completely inoperable, according to Gov. Tate Reeves, and thousands already have lost water service. Even the bottled water ran out at one point.
Emergency plans have been started and an incident command center has been established, and Mississippi State Department of Health employees are helping city operators attempt repairs on the O.B. Curtis plant, one of the city’s largest. But the governor warned:
Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale. It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.
The plant was damaged, and it was unable to handle recent Pearl River flooding. Improvements will be fast-tracked on an emergency basis, but emergency infrastructure projects can be costly. A recent study estimated that the cost of reacting to a water crisis is five times the cost of preparing for one.
Jackson is hardly alone in the United States. Few municipalities have a plan to address the cost of aging infrastructure. While the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated $44 billion for water infrastructure, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the staggering need.
Delivering Water Infrastructure
Fortunately, modern infrastructure delivery models have evolved to address the challenge. Financing contracts like public-private partnerships (P3s), build-own-operate (BOO), and build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) can deliver water infrastructure with little or no upfront capital investment, with long-term operations and maintenance included.
They allow clients to get the water they need, leveraging the experience and resources of a specialized water company to provide water at an agreed-upon cost and quality. The private company takes care of the details, leaving the client to concentrate on its core mission.
P3, BOO, and BOOT structures have evolved from early privatization schemes into performance-based contracts that align interests. For instance, Seven Seas Water Group projects delivered through Water-as-a-Service® (WaaS®) guarantee water quality or the company does not get paid. Water costs are negotiated in advance, which stops water pricing from becoming a political football.
For infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair, WaaS® can also lease treatment plants, or repair, upgrade, and operate plants for clients.
You might think that low or no upfront cost would be recouped with high water costs, but a WaaS® project in Alice, Texas, not only eliminated the upfront CAPEX burden for the municipality, it also lowered the price the city was already paying for imported water.
The technical, financial, and organizational requirements of running a modern, compliant water treatment system can be difficult for municipalities to manage. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said, “We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis.”
Through its WaaS®, Seven Seas remains at the client’s side with all-inclusive, long-term agreements so clients don’t have to go it alone. Contact our water professionals for more information.
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