Enough is enough – investment in water infrastructure as a national priority cannot wait
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For much of last year, and during 2016’s election season, speeches were delivered, and promises were made about improving the state of our nation’s infrastructure. However, when Congress had an opportunity to address infrastructure investment alongside tax reform, it was not taken.

Now, a year later, the administration and Congress are once again making new promises to develop plans to address our nation’s failing infrastructure.

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It is imperative that national elected officials keep this promise and put forward infrastructure legislation that includes impactful new funding and financing for infrastructure. But, they must take it one step further to prioritize water infrastructure – not just roads and bridges – with smart policy proposals that take the best ideas each party has to offer. 

In the wake of the very serious challenges to providing basic clean water services across the country– including problems stemming from recent natural disasters— it’s time to say enough is enough and insist that the nation’s fragile water systems be a top priority.

Water is one of life’s daily essentials, and often taken for granted. But quantity doesn’t ensure quality, as numerous communities discovered when they went weeks and even months with service disruptions because of water quality impairments or failing infrastructure.

The administration and Congress must remain firmly committed to investing in our nation’s infrastructure with a priority for water. For 40 years, the percentage of overall federal infrastructure spending has been steady for roads and bridges, but water infrastructure has received a significantly smaller and ever-diminishing share of total infrastructure investment.

Federal spending on water infrastructure decreased from $76 per person in 1977 to just $11 per person in 2014, adjusted for inflation, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The EPA estimates that our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure will require more than $650 billion in investment over the next 20 years just to maintain current levels of service, with some estimating the need at over $1 trillion. These numbers are staggering.

With federal investment declining, roughly 95 percent of the financial burden to build, operate, maintain and repair water infrastructure has fallen to local and state governments – despite federal mandates under the Clean Water Act being a primary cost driver. Concerns over water affordability across the country, particularly for low-income populations, is acute. In 2016, the average cost of wastewater services rose 2.6 percent, double the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and all indications are rates will continue to increase. Municipalities are doing their job – investing more than $100 billion per year, but are seeing little commitment or partnership at the federal level.

Many of our nation’s water and wastewater systems have been around for more than a century and industry experts and specialists are responsible for some of the most important public health and environmental gains in the last century. Advances in our clean water have substantially reduced infant and child mortality rates, largely eradicated diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera, and dramatically increased water quality nationwide. However, while water treatment and management have continued to advance, neither federal funding nor federal policies have kept pace.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave the U.S. a “D+” and a “D” grade for its wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, respectively. Antiquated stormwater and clean water management systems are failing, which poses life-threatening service disruptions. Recent events in Houston, Texas, Puerto Rico, Flint, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio underscore the impacts of what happens when clean and safe water services are overwhelmed. 

We insist Congress and the White House follow through on their calls to address our country’s serious water needs and give clean water the priority it is due in a federal infrastructure investment package.

On behalf of the 1100+ publicly owned treatment works that the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) represents across the nation, I can say that a strong federal-state-local partnership to deliver clean water to every community - large and small, urban and rural - is needed now more than ever. NACWA stands ready to work with Congress and the administration to fulfill this legislative priority and urge prioritization of water as a central part of the infrastructure package. Life literally depends on it. 

Adam Krantz is the CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.