Potential for agreement? Reinvesting in America’s water infrastructure
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America’s deteriorating infrastructure promises to have a cascading impact on our nation’s economy, hindering business productivity, employment and personal income – and reducing our international competitiveness. A strong economy depends upon a first class infrastructure system.

As Congress grapples with funding the Water Resources Development Act before the end of the year (which would provide the needed funding for Flint, Michigan, where water from the river corroded the city’s pipes and contaminated the water supply with lead), we are reminded of an even larger looming problem facing our nation.  Reinvesting in our crumbling, neglected drinking water and wastewater systems is something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on – and they are likely to find support in the new White House. The time is ripe for coalition building, collaborative problem-solving and a bit of old-fashioned American ingenuity to ensure that our reinvestment in America’s water infrastructure is both sustainable and equitable.

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Water professionals across the U.S. agree that our nation’s drinking water infrastructure is in disrepair.  The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest Report Card for America’s Infrastructure grades our drinking and wastewater systems with a “D.” Most of our water infrastructure was built 50 or more years ago in the post-World War II era, and in some older urban areas in the U.S., systems are more than a century old.

Failures in our water infrastructure can be catastrophic. Failing systems will likely result in water disruptions to homes and communities. They can increase the likelihood of public health issues as the recent lead-contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan illustrates.  Leaking pipes waste water. The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago estimates that approximately 6 billion gallons of water might be wasted in the U.S. every day. Cities from Atlanta to Cleveland to Pittsburgh are losing upwards of 30 percent of their water each year to leaking pipes.

Reinvesting in our aging water infrastructure will not be cheap. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that a $4.8 trillion investment is needed over the next 20 years to fix and maintain America’s current water service levels.  Postponing investment will only make the problem worse by increasing the odds of facing the high costs associated with water main breaks and other infrastructure failures, according to the American Water Works Association.   

Fortunately, there is no shortage of good ideas. The environment is being integrated and considered in ways never imagined when our water infrastructure was first constructed decades ago. In Tucson, Ariz., rainwater harvesting and greywater systems represent green infrastructure approaches to capturing and utilizing new water supplies for neighborhoods and communities. Floodplain restoration measures are being adopted in communities from Louisiana to Washington to work with nature to not only save lives and property but also restore wildlife habitat, improve water quality and make communities more resilient to flooding. The rebuilding of Brooklyn’s 26th Ward Wastewater Treatment Plant, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, included innovative improvements to help make the plant more resilient to wet weather and increase plant capacity, and feature reused construction materials and a green roof.

Communities are embracing both low- and high-tech solutions.  Wastewater is being crafted into beer in Portland, Ore. Robots and magnetic sensors are being used to uncover leaking and broken pipes in Arlington, Texas, and Syracuse, N.Y.  And in Philadelphia, a new biogascogeneration facility captures methane gas from the sewage treatment process to help operate the plant. 

Past inequities are being recognized and addressed in communities across the U.S.  In Washington, D.C., the Clean Rivers Project is working to burrow miles of deep-storage tunnels to cut down on untreated water entering DC’s waterways, reduce flooding in low-income neighborhoods, and improve the health of the long-neglected Anacostia River. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise will help develop a master plan to address the need for access to sanitation services in Lowndes County, a poor, predominantly African American rural community where the number of households with inadequate or no septic systems range from 40 to 90 percent, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

We can build from these examples of reinvestment in sustainable, equitable water infrastructure, but tackling our water infrastructure demands a significant federal investment. The federal government must be a leader in our water reinvestment strategy. Programs like the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund can be enhanced to continue to provide needed loans and grants to communities across the U.S. Congress and the Trump Administration can work together to establish a National Infrastructure Bank to provide low-cost public and private financing for infrastructure projects of regional significance. A clean water trust fund could provide a dedicated source of funding for wastewater infrastructure.

One thing is for sure: our re-investment strategy must be as varied and multi-faceted as our country itself.  Small rural systems will likely remain dependent on government aid.  We can just do business as usual. Towns and cities can limp along, repairing leaks incrementally, applying band aids to gushing wounds. But failures in our water systems will continue to threaten public health safety.  Businesses and communities will be disrupted.  Precious water resources wasted.

Alternatively, we can harness this unique opportunity to build from the progress being made in communities across the U.S. to reinvest in a water infrastructure that is both sustainable and equitable. In a deeply divided nation, reinvestment in water infrastructure offers a promising pathway.   

Andrea K. Gerlak is an Associate Professor in the School of Geography and Development and Associate Research Professor at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona.  She is a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.