Water companies and other utilities are sounding an alarm — and trying to drum up money — to improve the services they provide.

They've dubbed next week "Infrastructure Week," and the idea is to call attention to pipes, bridges, and other bones of a community that people don't often think about until something goes wrong.

Several years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card for the nation's infrastructure, and America earned a D-plus — just above a failing grade.

Just getting started

"If you look at what happened, say, in Flint, Michigan — where they didn't take care of their water infrastructure — you can see that taking care of water infrastructure is important to public health and public well-being," said Andy Kricun, chief engineer for the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.

He says Camden, New Jersey, is planting rain gardens, opening parks, and replacing pipes to improve the city's combined storm water and sewer system.

"The useful life of a sewer pipe is about 70 to 80 years, so much of Camden's combined system is past that. That's true for a lot of urban cities," Kricun said.

A combination of "green" improvements and "gray" repairs have reduced flooding and diverted storm water from undersized pipes.

"Pardon the pun, it's only a drop in the bucket," Kricun said. "There's a lot more to go."

Good for Camden's bottom line

Combined waste and storm-water systems can be a big source of pollution and expensive to fix.

For the first time this year, Camden is hiring young adults to do park and green infrastructure maintenance. The program, called PowerCorps, will teach 18- to 25-year-olds about green ways to manage storm water.

Leaky pipes and aging infrastructure are costing Camden money.

David Choate, who leads the contract service arm of the American Water utility, says the city loses about 30 percent of the water it pumps and treats for drinking water.

"Being able to reduce that number down, is very significant, it obviously saves in energy, it saves the city money in power costs and chemical costs, and it's just good for the environment overall," Choate said.

This summer, PowerCorps workers will partner with staffers from the utility to begin mapping the vast network of hydrants, meters, and valves. Choate says it's a first step toward making informed decisions and prioritizing repairs.

In February, American Water's contract division began a 10-year agreement to operate Camden's water and sewer system.

Editor's note: WHYY's CEO Bill Marrazzo is a member of the board of directors of the private utility American Water.