Our country must do better than nearly failing when it comes to something so vital and fundamental as water. Yet a D is our nation’s water infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It has taken the lead contamination scandal in Flint to focus the attention of Congress and elected officials across the nation, but Flint is only the tip of an iceberg.

News reports now say as many as 2,000 water systems across the country may have excessive lead levels, while as many as 10 million homes receive water through lead pipes. Across the nation, many pipes are more than 100 years old, some dating to the Civil War era, posing drinking water risks. Each year, according to the Civil Engineers, there are 240,000 water main breaks. Faulty pipes result in the leakage of 900 billion gallons of wastewater a year, helping to make 28 percent of waterways unfit for human recreation and 18 percent unfit for consumption. According to the ASCE, the cost to fix our nation’s neglect of water resources is now $1.7 trillion – and rising.


From drinking water contamination, to water scarcity that has parched much of California’s farmland, to ports and waterways that can no longer accommodate commerce, the water crisis is one of the most critical issues facing the U.S. As Flint shows, the crisis raises moral questions, but there are major economic costs as well. For example, in just 2015 alone, the water crisis cost California nearly $3 billion in commerce and 21,000 jobs, according to the University of California – Davis. In Flint alone, more than $1 billion will be needed to replace pipes. Across the country, neglect of inland waterways and the associated stunting of water transportation activity could hit the economy with the loss of 738,000 jobs by 2020, a nearly $750 billion hit to the economy, according to the Civil Engineers.

America can do better than a D. This year, Congress is likely to consider a number of water infrastructure measures ranging from reauthorization of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act to bills aimed at alleviating the drought in the West and efforts to increase funding for clean and safe drinking water. But we must caution Congress against ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’ For the sake of our children in every community, the drinking water crisis must receive additional, significant and dedicated resources above and apart from WRRDA. That piece of legislation is simply not capable of addressing the crisis, and attempting to use it for that purpose will only strain other critical water resources.

When parents in Flint first expressed alarm about lead levels in drinking water and the documented impact the chemical has on child development, some were told not to worry. “It’s just a few IQ points,” one mother recounted being told by a nurse.

Just as flippant responses to the Flint water crisis are repulsive, so too will be excuses by Congress for failing to act. The challenge is enormous, but the rewards can be equally great. The men and women of LIUNA are ready to fight to protect lives and we’re ready to get to work doing our job to rebuild America’s neglected water infrastructure. Now it’s up to Congress and elected officials at every level to do their jobs to ensure our country and our people have what they deserve: an A-plus water infrastructure.

O’Sullivan is General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents a half-million men and women predominantly in the construction industry.