During this year’s election, both major party candidates have discussed the need for massive infrastructure investments to upgrade everything from our highways and bridges to our airports. Unfortunately, there has been little conversation highlighting our nation’s urgent need to upgrade our aging drinking water and wastewater systems.
While our interstate highway system officially turned 60 this year, some of the infrastructure delivering water to our communities is over a century old, and that includes the pipes—many made of lead. So it’s no surprise that there’s an urgent national health crisis unfolding before our eyes. Far beyond Flint, Mich., every week more information is revealed showing that millions of homes, schools, restaurants and small and large businesses in almost every state throughout the country are serviced by lead pipes or old crumbling water lines. According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, economically distressed cities with declining populations continue to have urgent water infrastructure needs: there are more Flints waiting in the wings if we don’t act.
That’s why upgrading our national water infrastructure is a national moral imperative. This water crisis plagues our entire society, for we all suffer when our water infrastructure is left to languish and poison our nation — including our children.
In 1977 we spent $76 per person to support public water, but today we are spending less than $14 per person—an 82 percent decrease overall. This lack of investment causes trillions of gallons of treated water to leak through crumbling water pipes, wasting an estimated $2.6 billion each year. Without dedicated federal funding, many communities simply cannot afford to repair and maintain the pipes and treatment systems that keep our water clean and safe.
Transforming our water systems also means good paying jobs — and lots of them. A 2009 study by the Clean Water Council estimated that every $1 billion spent on water infrastructure could create between 20,000 and nearly 27,000 jobs across the economy. That means that fully meeting our water funding needs — an estimated $35 billion a year—would create nearly a million employment opportunities across the economy.
We certainly can’t run our water systems like a business; we need to maintain public control of our local water systems for them to remain accountable to our communities, not shareholders. We need a robust investment to upgrade our water systems, and it must not incentivize corporate control of water.
When communities lack the funds to maintain their own water systems, they become vulnerable to privatization schemes where corporations offer municipalities money in exchange for running the local water system, hiking rates or cutting corners to increase their profits. Big banks also see water as big business—Wall Street players have gotten into the privatization game, trying to facilitate deals and get a cut of the money in return.
The renewed interest in our nation’s infrastructure, therefore, must not end with roads and bridges. That’s why we must fight tooth and nail to demand our elected official ensure that everyone in our country has access to safe, affordable, locally controlled water service and wastewater disposal. Congress must act by including billions into any new infrastructure bill to finally prioritize our water infrastructure and protect our right to safe water today and for future generations.
Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy organization.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.