Economy & Budget

Oroville Dam crisis shows why we can’t take water infrastructure for granted

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During the 20th century, the United States pioneered and built water-treatment and delivery systems that provide nearly all Americans with safe water and sanitation, and eliminated cholera, dysentery and other water-related diseases still prevalent in other parts of the world.

That is a set of achievements worth celebrating.

But recent disasters and crises around the country over the past few years have highlighted gaping holes in how we prioritize, maintain and fund critical water — and indeed, transportation, energy and communications — infrastructure.

Contamination, out-of-date pipes and treatment plants in places such as Flint, Michigan and other aging cities; failing flood levees in New Orleans and other coastal communities; and crumbling hydroelectric and water-supply dams in Western states — exemplified by the recent crisis at the Oroville Dam in California — have exposed a bigger systemic problem.

Solving these problems is a strength of American ingenuity, engineering and management. If our politicians set aside ideology, the country can move to protect the water system we have and modernize it for the challenges facing coming generations.

Inadequate funding for the nation’s water infrastructure is well-documented. The average dam in this country is 50 years old. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates the cost of needed repairs for just 2,000 of the country’s most dangerous high-hazard dams is $21 billion.

{mosads}A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated overall unmet funding needs of our water infrastructure at $187 billion by 2020 (in 2010 real dollars). Simply fixing the recent damage at the main spillway at Oroville Dam alone could cost an astounding $100 million to 200 million, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources.


The good news is that there is rare bipartisan support for boosting investment in “infrastructure.” Both major party presidential candidates supported such investment, and the Trump administration and Congress have suggested this will be an early priority.

The bad news is that there are serious unresolved debates about how much money might be available, how that money should be spent, and who should decide where it goes.

In addition, the vast backlog of urgent projects will never be eliminated with federal funds alone. Many water projects are built and managed by state or local agencies. Thousands of public and private water utilities funded by ratepayers, not taxpayers, are responsible for providing much of the water and wastewater needs of homes, industry and businesses.

Where possible, money for adequate maintenance of our water system should come from the users who benefit. Most of us pay too little for the water we already get, and we should be willing to pay more, with the important caveat that economic support programs are in place to protect the poorest populations.

But there are certain things that the federal government can and must do. Any federal infrastructure program should carefully focus on these priorities.

At the top of the list is to protect and strengthen the critical federal laws that protect national water quality and human health: the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. Weakening the laws or passing the responsibility for protecting water quality to the 50 separate states would lead to a human health and ecological disaster.

Other priorities are the complete elimination of lead fixtures in cities, the testing of water in every school, accelerated inspections and repair of dams owned and operated by federal agencies, remediation of pollution in public waters, improvements in irrigation and urban water-use efficiency, and investment in new water-treatment and reuse technologies.

Water infrastructure isn’t just dams and levees, it’s hundreds of millions of efficient washing machines, toilets, showerheads and irrigation systems.

Federal money can be applied through tools such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the farm bill, trade laws, national appliance efficiency standards and tax-code revisions that promote water-efficiency investments for farmers, industry, and communities.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s state revolving-loan program has been a huge, albeit underfunded, success story for local communities. These strategies could produce hundreds of thousands of new jobs in urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency, construction, storm water management and ecological restoration.

Finally, although the reality of climate change and changes in extreme weather events are not popular topics for some politicians, they are already practical threats to water systems around the world. Our superb water infrastructure, especially water supply, flood-control and hydroelectric facilities, were designed and built using assumptions about extreme events that are no longer valid.

We already see fundamental changes in storm frequency and intensity, increases in the size and duration of droughts and rainfall events, disappearing snow packs, growing agricultural water demands with rising temperatures, and more.

We cannot afford the luxury of pretending climate change isn’t real, and we cannot afford to ignore the risks to our water infrastructure posed by these changes. Any investment in infrastructure must take climate change into account through smart flexible design, integration of better weather-forecasting and modeling tools, and adoption of new standards for facility construction and operation.

American science and engineering has produced some of the best water infrastructure in the world, but let’s stop taking it for granted or it will erode away.

Peter Gleick is co-founder and chief scientist of the Pacific Institute. He is a hydroclimatologist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Gleick is also a MacArthur Fellow. His writing has appeared in Science magazine.

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