The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on many of the structural challenges facing this country, from shortages in health and human services to vital infrastructure needs that have been neglected far too long. As members of Congress continue to debate the merits of providing financial relief to various public sectors and private industries – from the cruise and tourism industries to other, arguably more essential components of the global economy – one sector of our critical infrastructure is now claiming its rightful spotlight as an essential service – water.
Despite having been passed over for much-needed financial relief in the most recent stimulus packages, the essential need for clean and safe water has never been more apparent or on the minds of so many. With this new awareness, the long overdue federal investment to repair and upgrade these systems is being acknowledged by Congress and this administration.
In the early days of the pandemic, knowing that sanitation and hygiene are the foundation to preventing the spread of COVID-19, the public clean water sector worked to ensure that all U.S. households – even those with delinquent accounts – would have access to clean water. This was largely done at the individual utility level, made with the knowledge that providing free services to those in need comes at a cost, and at a time when these same agencies are suffering staggering revenue losses from the historic economic disruption caused by COVID-19. Clean water agencies employ essential workers, many of whom still show up in person each day to ensure homes, businesses and hospitals have uninterrupted water services to keep people safe.
What’s more, this pandemic and its ensuing economic hardships represent only one instance of the public water sector stepping up to provide more services with fewer resources.
By the Environmental Protection Agency’s own estimate, our nation’s water infrastructure will require a nearly $750 billion investment over the next 20 years to maintain current levels of service. This excludes consideration of any additional services that communities are demanding, and which utilities would like nothing more than to provide.
For example, the contaminant PFAS has dominated environmental discourse over the past year – Hollywood even took on the story in the film “Dark Waters” – and members of Congress have been quick to propose legislation to address the public concern. Public utilities are on the front lines of environmental protection. They do not generate or profit from PFAS chemicals, and where they are called upon to mitigate PFAS, utilities must be protected from liability and have confidence that the actions and investments they are undertaking will in fact improve environmental health. For this reason, the water sector has consistently advocated for policies and regulations developed through an evidence and risk-based scientific and regulatory process that ensures the complex challenges facing public utilities around PFAS are properly addressed.
Complex water quality challenges like PFAS will continue to emerge adding enormous expenses to a rate base already facing affordability challenges, and the solutions we seek will largely prove to be prohibitively expensive at the individual utility level. Therefore, the water sector has continuously sought to partner with the federal government to invest in water research and the technological developments needed to spur innovative and cost-effective solutions. By acting as an investment partner now, the federal government has the opportunity to guarantee citizens across the country will find savings in their water bills as more efficient technologies are developed to protect the environment and public health.
These scientific advances must benefit all members of the community regardless of socioeconomic background. To ensure the widespread appreciation of benefits, the federal government must also increase its assistance to low-income households. There is no reason why a program modeled on similarly essential services, like the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), does not exist for water. These communities are no less deserving of water than they are of heating or food.
To more adequately address an ever-increasing list of complex environmental and societal concerns for an even broader portion of the American public, the federal government must adequately match the heroic efforts of its public water sector. That means providing financial relief to utilities that put their own operational resources on the line to protect the public health, but it also means more. It means providing funding for the necessary infrastructure investments needed to maintain basic levels of service; and yet, it will require more. It means the federal government acting as an equal partner in investment in infrastructure and technological solutions to ensure uninterrupted access to life’s most essential component in every household in America. It means treating access to water with the same sense of urgency and import as access to roads and bridges.
This Water Week we highlight the heroic work that water utility workers are doing across the country. They are supporting us during this trying time, and it is time for the federal government to provide meaningful support in return.
Adam Krantz is CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He directs a Washington, D.C., team that advocates on behalf of the nation’s public clean water agencies on an array of regulatory, legislative, legal, and communication initiatives geared toward ensuring sustainable clean water agencies.