Local experts are the vital piece to solve the infrastructure puzzle
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With so much attention focused on the national level on what Congress will do to address our infrastructure needs, it’s critical to remember that local experts play a vital role in addressing our challenges. It’s the local leaders who know exactly what parts of our infrastructure is in imperil, and for years now, they have been warning about what’s buried in the ground.

The buried pipes that carry clean drinking water to our communities are some of the most vital infrastructure we have. But we don’t think about what we don’t see until something happens. We should, though. In fact, we should think about water infrastructure in the same way and with the same urgency with which we consider the bridges and roads we drive on every day. We expect bridges to last for decades, if not longer; we should have the same high expectation for our water systems.


To make this infrastructure last when it is put into the ground, it is important that design decisions are made at the local level. Local engineers and water system experts know the needs of our communities. They know, for example, the specific soil conditions and topography of our cities, each being unique. Local experts are the ones we should trust to choose the best water pipe material for the job – not politicians in Washington or in far removed state capitals. Our politicians, in most cases, don’t have the technical know-how to solve the puzzles of complex engineered integrated infrastructure systems.

Keeping decisions about what materials are most suitable in the hands of local experts is so important that the National Association of Counties (NACo) has again passed a resolution saying it “supports local control of water infrastructure procurement decisions” and “opposes federal legislation that sets mandatory state requirements.” Municipal leaders know that a one-size solution for all does not fit for water infrastructure .

Long-term investments in infrastructure have been a key topic at the Water Finance conference in Washington D.C. this week where leaders from every level of government and water utility operators from across the country gathered to hear from experts and from each other. I joined a panel there to talk about how I approached challenges in my community in Oregon where I was a mayor and county commissioner to keep water infrastructure investments affordable for our constituents. I stressed the importance I placed on the knowledge and expertise of utility professionals, project managers and local engineers through my more than 27-year career in public service. With increasingly tight budgets and competing priorities, it is vital to lean on the local experts to help municipal leaders make the best long-term investments.

Traverse City, Mich., City Commissioner Richard I. Lewis recently wrote, “Municipal systems are operated locally and local governments have the obligation to design, operate and maintain them to ensure the protection of the public’s health and safety. Several times now, legislation that would restrict the ability of local project managers and engineers to decide the best pipe investment to use in their communities has been introduced by Michigan lawmakers. These bills across states have been introduced under the guise of opening municipal bids to more competition and driving down costs. Unfortunately, all this legislation does is undermine local water professionals and local control.” Across the country similar state level bills have been defeated time and again.

NACo and each state should be congratulated for standing up for the skill and knowledge that is demonstrated on a daily basis by local experts in cities and counties. We have seen the damage that the gravitational pull of moving decisions away from local technical experts to politicians can do.

It’s up to municipal leaders to make sure that local decisions continue to be made by local experts. That’s the only we way we can be sure that our communities will have the safest, most dependable water delivery systems for generations.

Tony Hyde was a Columbia County, Ore., commissioner, the former mayor of Vernonia, and also on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Counties.