How to Address Water Affordability and Equity with Asset Management

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May 19, 2021 | David Totman

Water Affordability and Equity issues have been around for many years, if not decades. Lead service lines were state-of-the-art water engineering in the 1920’s, yet 95 years later the relationship of public health and public infrastructure catapulted to the top with the Flint, MI crisis in disadvantaged communities. Meanwhile, buried in statistics little attention was paid in the past to the fact that nearly 28% of Americans could not afford the US national average water bill. For me it became a position statement in coauthoring with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on our Public Comment to the proposed 2020 Financial Capability Assessment (FCA) guidelines put forth by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Add to this the COVID-19 pandemic escalating bad debt issues for municipalities and utilities due to economic hardships thrust upon their customers unable to pay their bills. Today it is at the forefront of water news and this historic wrong is about to be made right with the Biden Infrastructure Plan.

Nothing cuts to the heart of asset management more than the topic of Lead Service Lines and the corollary of Water Affordability and Equity. From an objective/mechanical perspective, the two have nothing to do with one another. From a subjective/service level perspective, they are powerfully intertwined. Digital asset management solutions from Innovyze will allow any utility to address this challenge with objective accountability and transparency.

The hydraulically aware asset performance and risk modeling solutions from Innovyze will:

  • Identify total risk of Lead Service lines
  • Quantify the infrastructure renewal cost
  • Communicate the logic to stakeholders for full accountability and transparency

Independent stance

Let me first explain that objectively, lead service lines in the US are typically not even the responsibility of the local municipality/utility. As shown in Figure 1 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the total service line is comprised of 1) the public stub from the water main in the street to the curb stop/property line (which today are 99+% non-lead), and 2) the private yard line from the curb stop/property line to the house. Placement of the meter above/below ground is dependent upon the geography and cold winter temperatures.

                                      Figure 1:

To reiterate, the utility owns and maintains the stub while the service line in the yard is the responsibility of homeowner. From an objective/mechanical perspective, asset management principles typically apply to assets that you own.

With respect to aging infrastructure, lead service lines were used by many contractors and plumbers due to their durability and flexibility prior to World War II. Therefore, customers that live in established communities with older homes may be at risk to lead service lines. The USEPA estimates there are from 6 million to 10 million homes left in the US with lead service lines. If the home was built after the 1970’s, chances are newer materials such as copper, galvanized steel, PVC, or PEX were used.

The relationship of disadvantaged communities and aging infrastructure is a socio-economic issue that is beyond the scope of this blog. Please consult the plethora of case studies on social injustice or see proposed legislation from House Chair DeFazio and Senate Majority Leader Schumer on how to fund these initiatives.

Dependent stance

With respect to service levels, asset management principles do apply if the municipality/utility takes full ownership of providing the service of clean drinking water to the tap within the home. This applies to both quantity and quality. With respect to quantity, the United Kingdom adopted regulations that require nationalized utilities take responsibility for water loss in their system regardless of location, so service lines up to the meter independent of location, are managed by the utility. Internal plumbing within the home is globally understood as the responsibility of the homeowner.

Identify Risk

The risk of lead service lines is both a quantity and quality issue. Hydraulic modeling solutions from Innovyze can model both. GIS is the key to preparing the data for analysis. Multiple case studies from Esri exist on utilities that have created Lead Service Line databases through internal records and volunteered public input/self-reporting. Without confirmation of specific service line materials, cadastre records and/or original Certificates of Occupancy could be used to approximate the probability of the existence of lead service lines based on temporal local construction standards.

Once a lead service line registry has been created, quantitative and qualitative hydraulic modeling can take place. Assuming a utility’s KPI is delivery of a specific minimum pressure to the home, classic water main pressure modeling can be applied, plus reduction in pressures by tuberculation of oxides in the lead service lines. Quality KPIs are driven by the Safe Drinking Water Act and water quality modeling capabilities can estimate Disinfection By-Products in the water mains as well as source water chemistry interacting with the lead oxide in the service lines. Water quality was the primary source in the Flint, MI crisis.

All of this can be identified as risk zones consumed in the InfoAsset asset performance and risk modeling solution. Configuring individual risk cohorts and organizational tolerance to risk profiles allows an organization to compute Total Risk to the organization from lead service lines.

Estimate Cost

Once risk is assigned to assets, logic processing configured by business rules in a decision tree stream assets into prioritized lists characterized by O&M work activities and Capital rehabilitation methods. Costs are then aggregated by parameters associated with the work activities and rehabilitation methods.   This workflow is illustrated in Figure 2 from our product page on InfoAsset Planner.

                              Figure 2: InfoAsset Planner Workflow (click the link to learn more)

Individual assets can then be grouped into projects based on O&M and/or Capital cost centers. When there are more projects than funding, tackling the highest risk projects that include remediating lead service lines can be justified to all stakeholders. From a pure financial perspective, more advanced Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA) can be executed to determine the optimal timing of when to stop spending O&M dollars for maintenance and pull the trigger on Capital funds for full rehabilitation or replacement.

Communicate Actions

The entire workflow from Figure 2 also lives within an Esri ArcGIS environment. At the utility’s discretion, any or all the information can be published via web services to make use of the collaborative tools found within the ArcGIS Enterprise environment such as ArcGIS Online and Storymaps. The insight gained through the process can be field verified by stakeholders with the use of smart device solutions such as Survey 123 and ArcGIS Field Maps. One of our customers leading the way on Lead Service Lines is DC Water. Check out their public portal found in Figure 3.

                                  Figure 3:

With the appropriate amount of data and analysis, application of comprehensive service level measures, and willingness to characterize a very challenging subject, asset management can indeed address water affordability and equity related to lead service lines.

To learn more about better asset management can improve your water quality, visit: InfoAsset

If you have any questions about the content of this blog, feel free to contact me at

Tags: asset management, water quality, piping infrastructure, copper, lead, drinking water

About the Authors

David Totman

David Totman

VP of Asset Management


Having been a public servant for many years, David's passion for infrastructure is exemplified throughout his experience as the VP of Asset Management at Innovyze and advisory Past-President for the Utility Engineering & Surveying Institute in the ASCE. 

Connect with David on LinkedIn