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Kentucky Needs $15 Billion To Fix Aging Drinking Water, Sewer Systems

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Kentucky’s aging drinking water and sewer systems need billions of dollars in investment to prevent system failures impacting public health and the environment, according to Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Current investments aren’t enough and the state needs nearly $15 billion in additional infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years, said Deputy Cabinet Secretary Bruce Scott to the Senate standing committee on natural resources Monday.

“We have to make an investment, we cannot avoid making the investment in water and sewers and dams,” Scott said. “The only real question is when.”

About half of the infrastructure in place for water and sewers is past its design life, said Peter Goodman, Division of Water director.

  • The state’s 213 drinking water treatment plants are more than 38 years old, on average.
  • About 800 of Kentucky’s wastewater treatment plants are more than 36 years old, on average.

And many of the state’s drinking water lines and sewer pipes are even older.
“There’s a lot of wastewater systems with clay-tile pipe that we put in in my lifetime that’s in bad shape, probably including from my house to the local sewer,” Goodman said.

Credit Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

Over the decades, a lot of people borrowed money and built infrastructure based on 20 years of forecasted growth in population and economic development, but the recession disrupted those plans, Goodman said.

At the same time, people began using more conservation practices, like low-flow fixtures, he said.

So communities ended up selling less water and treating less wastewater with the same high-fixed costs, and because most operators don’t want to raise rates, they deferred maintenance, Goodman said.

“There is infrastructure in the ground that is not ideal and there is infrastructure in the ground that’s creating problems for small systems, for all systems,” Goodman said.

Looking at the history of regulatory compliance, it appears communities are hitting a wall, he said.

Only 62 percent of wastewater operators are in compliance with inspections. That’s likely because aging infrastructure won’t allow them to get beyond that, Goodman said.

“They have good operators out there but they are up against infrastructure,” Goodman said.

Dams too, need an estimated $100 million in near-term investment. Losses from dam failures are estimated to be $500 million for homes, business and infrastructure and another $28 million for agriculture, according to an Energy and Environment Cabinet presentation.

The American Society for Civil Engineers gave the state a “C” overall for its 2011 infrastructure report card, including a “C-” for wastewater and a “C+” for drinking water.

Kentucky’s infrastructure woes aren’t outside the norm. The country as a whole received a “D+” according to the 2017 report card from the American Society for Civil Engineers.

A look at neighboring states shows Indiana and Illinois require about the same level of investment in drinking water and wastewater systems as Kentucky over the next 20 years — between about $6 and $8 billion, according to the American Society for Civil Engineers.

Other states, like Ohio, need to spend at least twice that amount on wastewater investments.

Scott, from the Energy and Environment Cabinet, told the Senate committee that Kentucky needs to take a proactive approach to avoid long-term expenses.

“When we spend money upfront earlier it’s a cheaper long-term investment than if we spend money in a reactive mode,” Scott said.

The cabinet asked the committee to establish a “Water Infrastructure Fund” to provide targeted investment in communities facing infrastructure challenges.

They also asked for a work group to address the problems, devise solutions and report them to the legislature.

Credit Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet

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