As the heads of two large, public water and wastewater utilities on opposite ends of the country, we see the value that water infrastructure brings to America’s homes, towns, cities and states up close. 

After all, clean, readily available water helps keep our agricultural core healthy and growing. It helps fuel burgeoning domestic energy production, keeping consumers’ costs down. And it helps ensure that the nation’s production systems remain efficient and competitive in the global market. 


But right now, all that benefit is at risk, because the tunnels and pipes that make up our water infrastructure are crumbling beneath our feet. 

In its most recent report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. water and wastewater systems a D grade. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the United States will need to spend almost $5 trillion over the next 20 years in order to fix these systems and maintain the country’s current water service levels.

For years, the federal government has discounted the growing, festering problem. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Vice President Biden and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator McCarthy visit a huge tunnel boring machine on the shores of Washington’s Anacostia River earlier this year, urging immense new investment in the nation’s water infrastructure. 

“If we’re going to lead the world in the 21st century,” Biden said then, “then we have to have the most advanced infrastructure in the world.” 

We agree, and have already made our own investments to prove it. 

A recent study by the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment Research Foundation, found that 30 large public utilities – including San Francisco’s and Washington, DC’s – will invest $233 billion over the next decade and generate more than half a trillion dollars in U.S. economic output. 

Private utilities, too, will invest billions to bring our systems to a state of good repair. For example, American Water will pour more than $5 billion over the next five years into infrastructure innovations like new pumps that improve efficiencies, lower energy demand, and deliver water to customers at a lower cost. 

Water investment also means jobs. 

In San Francisco, the $4.6 billion investment to rebuild the region’s water system has supported 11,000 construction jobs – and counting. DC Water’s estimated economic contribution to the region totals $13.1 billion over the next decade, supporting 7,090 jobs per year. Across the industry, investments over the next decade are anticipated to support over 289,000 permanent jobs annually. And each public dollar spent will ripple out across the economy, yielding $2.62 in economic output across other industries. 

These kinds of investments have multiple returns to the environment, economy, and community. So they make the federal government’s absence from the conversation – just 2 percent of water and sewer improvements are paid for by the federal government – even more frustrating. 

This equation needs to change. 

Fortunately, a promising sign sprouted this spring, when legislation was introduced in the House and Senate calling for the EPA to establish a grant program for water systems to increase infrastructure investment in order to meet changing environmental conditions. 

But with overall U.S. infrastructure investment falling behind China, Japan, India, Russia and even South Africa, much more needs to be done. Three steps Congress and the Administration could take include: 

1.  Fully funding the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) pilot program that was established in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, signed into law last year. If San Francisco had access to a program like WIFIA, it would have saved $700 million for residents and ratepayers on its recent water system rebuild. 

2.  Fully funding EPA's Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds. The President's budget and the House and Senate appropriations bills that provide funding for the EPA cut funding for this program, which is critical for utilities’ day-to-day operations. 

3.  Creating a program for water workforce development, training and education to ensure there is a pool of qualified professionals to meet current and future needs. After all, the Water Research Foundation projects that in the next 10 years, about one-third of all water and wastewater utility workers will retire. 

According to the Water Industry Database, there are about 237,000 water main breaks every year across the entire United States.  In 2013, there were 100 in San Francisco alone, while Washington – where Civil War-era pipes are not uncommon – averages more than one break every day of the year. 

In the United States in 2015, this is simply unacceptable, and, as Biden added on the banks of the Anacostia, “it is causing a gigantic problem.” 

We agree, Mr. Vice President. And by working together with Congress and the critical federal agencies, we can solve it.

Hawkins is general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority. Kelly is general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.