Yesterday the President and the Democrats agreed to work on a plan to spend $2 Trillion on badly needed green (and other) infrastructure projects. We know that if it were ever to happen, there would be more worthwhile projects than money to pay for them. Currently, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there is a $105 million funding gap for water infrastructure repairs and replacements around the country. How can that funding go farther? Some cities have pioneered new cost-cutting water infrastructure technology that does not compromise on water quality and public safety. South Bend, Indiana and Kansas City, Missouri have used a high tech system developed from military technology to make their sewers “smarter” through digital water data monitoring and collection, and adaptive operations based on that data.
- In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held the city of South Bend in violation of the Clean Water Act and required sewer upgrades to end discharges of untreated sewage into the St, Joseph’s River — at an estimated cost of $500 million — an exorbitant amount for the city.
- Using funds provided by the Obama Administration for “smart cities,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg partnered with a group of researchers at Notre Dame to implement a smart sewer system with 150 wi-fi enabled sensors throughout the city to detect rising water levels and re-direct water flow – which they were able to complete in 2017 at a cost of only $150 million.
- The new system reduced sewer overflows by 75% and prevented more than 1,500 gallons of combined sewage from entering the river.
- Phase 2 is expected to cost $700-million but the city says data from the smart system helped them develop a new plan that will cost only $200-million, slashing the overall cost by $500 million, but it is awaiting EPA approval.
- Kansas City was also under an EPA order to prevent combined sewer water and stormwater from entering the Missouri River.
- Since 2010, the city has spent $505 million to prevent combined sewer overflows from entering the Missouri River. In all, the city said expected to spend $2.5 billion over 25 years to meet the EPA requirements under the Clean Water Act.
- Kansas City installed smart sewer and stormwater systems to reduce overflows into the river and they believe resulting cost savings – estimated at $1 billion –due to IoT, AI, and data mining – this technology should be a model for other cities.
- The city’s approach, based not only on Internet of Things (IoT) sensors for controlling sewer and stormwater flows but also on massive amounts of data that has guided the co-ordinated replacement of 140-year-old water and sewer pipes that are prone to breaks and leaks.
Why This Matters: Unleashing the power of technology could save the U.S. billions and make our limited infrastructure funds go farther. What we need is leadership and vision, and a willingness to try new things. South Bend’s wastewater transformation happened under the leadership of Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Could he do the same for aging infrastructure all over the country? The South Bend sewer system — as smart as it is — failed during a massive 500-year flood in 2018. Which is why infrastructure updates need to be made to withstand the climate disasters of the future — just as Beto O’Rourke proposed in his climate plan rolled out on Monday. Any infrastructure plan passed by Congress must be sustainable or we will waste precious money.
To Go Deeper Into South Bend’s Sewers: You can listen to this podcast with Mayor Pete by the H2duO.