After a challenging couple of years plagued with post-pandemic effects, unprecedented weather events and supply-chain disruption, November of 2021 served as a hopeful turning point for the waterworks sector with the passing of the U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — the largest investment in water in history, according to the American Waterworks Association’s 2022 State of the Waterworks Industry report (SOTWI).
The report, based on a survey of various sized companies and water professionals, cites the three top concerns in the waterworks industry today are: Renewal and replacement of aging water infrastructure, financing capital improvements, and long-term drinking water supply availability.
While the passing of the infrastructure bill sparked optimism for some, other professionals are worried about the likelihood of the funds reaching waterworks projects.
“While I am hopeful that aging infrastructure will be addressed and funds are appropriately used, it seems like since the infrastructure bill was passed, the funds are not trickling down to waterworks projects,” says Terry Dickens, president and owner of Olathe WinWater Works Co. “We mostly see spending on roads and bridges. Unfortunately in our country, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and waterworks is not visible like bridges and roads. Most repairs and upgrades aren’t addressed until they are broken.”
Rory Budds, director of waterworks at F.W. Webb points out that the sheer volume of waterworks projects in need of funding and resources calls for concern.
“There is a tremendous volume of infrastructure requiring long overdue upgrades — especially regarding wastewater treatment. Many treatment plants operate at capacity while past 'band aid' fixes are failing at other plants,” Budds says. “As residential markets continue to grow — particularly in communities outside of large cities — new plants (and upgrades to existing ones) will be needed.”
The SOTWI report presents some potentially positive information on funding, noting that 57% of participating utility company CEOs/CFOs say their access too funding was as good as or better than it was in the past five years. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed in March of 2021 and provides a path for utilizes to secure financial support for critical capital needs. The report states that this funding can be used for water infrastructure investments and providing premium pay for essential workers.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS & WATER SCARCITY
From hurricane Sandy in 2012 to the Texas freeze disaster of 2021, the U.S. has endured many wake up calls over the past decade when it comes to weather-related events. Waterworks industry professionals know that with each passing event, the need for infrastructure that can withstand grows immensely.
“The Northeast received a wakeup call from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Municipalities and the development community started to rethink water infrastructure. However, certain sections of the country don’t view the urgency through the same lens, and that impacts everyone,” Budds explains. “For example, hurricanes and deep freezes in the south impact resin availability. We need to start being more proactive instead of being reactive due to a natural disaster.”
Mike Stordahl, waterworks segment manager for Dakota Supply Group emphasizes the effect that hurricanes have on all facets of the waterworks industry. “Almost everything in the waterworks industry has some form of petroleum by-product,” he says. “When hurricanes hit the southern coasts, it disrupts PVC pipe, brass, iron and almost everything else. It also affects shipping on imported products and fuel for trucks delivering to and from our locations.”
WinWater’s Dickens agrees, pointing out that moving production plants out of hurricane-prone areas isn’t feasible, so preparedness is key. “Every disaster seems to affect the whole waterworks industry nationwide, especially in the hurricane prone south where most of our refineries and resin plants are located,” he says. “I wish there was a plan to move major plants out of hurricane and flood prone areas, but really don’t see that as a possibility, so staying educated and becoming better prepared for disasters is our only option.”
“Imagine if standards were uniform across the country or even a state. Then, manufacturers could focus on fewer products and most likely have better quality products. In turn, distributors would be able to stock more of the same products.”
- Mike Stordahl, Waterworks Segment Manager, Dakota Supply Group
Water scarcity, availability and safety continue to be on the minds of waterworks professionals and government officials alike. According to Stordahl, educating the general population about these concerns is an important step to a solution.
“The more we can teach the general public about the value of water services and resources, the better,” he says. “Most people don’t understand how water gets to their homes or what happens when the water goes down the drain. The more they know, the better chance we have that they won’t waste our resources.”
Dickens agrees, pointing out that some areas of the country are better off than others, but it is still vital to educate. “Fortunately, water conservation here in the Midwest is not an emergency like it is in California and Nevada. I do think it would be a great idea to have PSA’s about how and why it is important to conserve water.”
With long-term drinking water availability at the top of the concerns list among AWWA members, the association launched a Source Water Protection Week in 2021 to increase public awareness about where drinking water originates, what actions impact those water sources and how to support policies to keep water clean. A 2022 campaign is slated for September.
OVER REGULATED, UNDER STAFFED
As the country works to address water scarcity and tackle infrastructure projects, over or under-regulation is always a concern among waterworks professionals. “There needs to be a fine line between over-regulation and development strategies that don’t make water conservation cost effective,” Budds says. “The government should consider incentivizing modern technology investment instead of ‘upgrading’ with the same product.”
Stordahl points out that varying regulations across the country presents major challenges for distributors. “Every city has its codes and standards. Imagine if these standards were uniform across the country or even a state. Then, manufacturers could focus on fewer products and most likely have better quality products. In turn, distributors would be able to stock more of the same products.”
Moving on to one of the most well-known concerns industry-wide — the lack of skilled labor. With so many large-scale projects needing completion, the waterworks sector is especially impacted. AWWA’s SOTWI report found “aging workforce and anticipated retirements” to be the fourth top concern among survey participants.
“As with most labor situations, waterworks has an undeniable shortage of qualified professionals,” Stordahl says. “Because there is a wave of experienced workers retiring, educating younger individuals that waterworks can be a rewarding career can go a long way.”
Budds explains that extra actions need to be taken to attract and retain. “The national labor shortage has certainly affected the waterworks industry. Contractors, manufacturers, and distributors can attract quality workers by modifying hours and shifts. A better work-life balance increases the talent pool.”
AWWA notes that to expand the pool of job candidates, water systems companies should be reaching out to veterans, participating in training programs at high schools and technical colleges, and streamlining certification processes.
When discussing the immediate future of the waterworks sector, professionals say they expect to see “more of the same,” but they also expect growth and opportunity to be plentiful. “We will see much of what we have seen in the last couple of years: labor shortages, supply chain problems, and continued growth,” Stordahl says.
Budds also says there is no end in sight for supply issues. “I expect supply chain issues to continue through most of 2023. Companies would be wise to diversify product lines and invest in newer technologies.”
Dickens points out that different markets are experiencing different levels of growth. “I will be optimistic and say I expect the waterworks sector to remain flat. Although you would expect to see a slow down considering the factors of inflation and higher interest rates,” he says. “Repairs to infrastructure as well as new construction seem to be strong to date. But, we are seeing a slight slowing trend in the residential market right now.”
Joe Jacangelo, the AWWA president-elect, says technology and collaboration will allow the waterworks sector to emerge through ongoing challenges.
“I am confident that the challenges facing our water community will be solved through collaboration, research, technology and policy, all of which will advance innovation," he says. "Further, increased investment in water infrastructure will help drive progress, attract skilled workers, and increase public awareness about the value of water services and resources ... and above all, protect public health.”
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