Energy & Environment

US water infrastructure challenges need private sector participation


After reading, “Don’t let corporations control vulnerable Americans’ water,” I’m having a hard time deciding which misstatement I should respond to first.  

But before I get into correcting the record of the private water industry that the author Ms. Hauter so brutally smeared in her piece, I’ll lay out the facts. Yes, you know, the facts. Those pesky little things that get lost when a writer relies on grandiose scare tactics.

Fact: The private water industry today serves more than 73 million Americans — that’s close to one-quarter of the population.

{mosads}Fact: More than 2,000 water and wastewater facilities across the country are operated under public-private partnerships. These contracts, between 2000 and 2015, had a 97 percent renewal rate within the industry.


Now that those facts are on the table, we can thoughtfully examine the water infrastructure challenges faced by America’s cities and towns and potential solutions.

To fully understand the problem, let’s examine what is known about our country’s water infrastructure needs.  It is especially timely to do so as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) just released an updated infrastructure report card on which our nation’s infrastructure collectively scored a dismal D+ grade. The ASCE also assigns a letter grade to each component of America’s infrastructure, from levees and dams to bridges and roads. It comes as no surprise that America’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure received D and D+ grades, respectively.

What’s further concerning, aside from the assigned grades, are the staggering figures needed to bring our water infrastructure into the 21st Century. The EPA estimated $384 billion in funding was needed to maintain drinking water infrastructure between 2011 and 2030. The same figure for wastewater over that timeframe was $271 billion. That comes to a combined $655 billion. Much to the disappointment of groups like Food & Water Watch, there is not a magical, bottomless pot of government money at the end of the rainbow.

But for the 15 percent of Americans served by regulated water utilities, the good news is that these utilities are already investing billions each year in infrastructure. In fact, the six largest U.S. regulated water utilities are investing nearly $2.7 billion annually to improve community water systems across the country.

That leads me to a very important question. How is it even remotely reasonable to look at the facts and conclude there is no role for private capital?

But here’s the thing about groups like Food & Water Watch – their ideology is that the government should do everything without private sector involvement. And that’s fine if that’s the political ideology they support; thankfully we live in a free country where there’s room for even some of the most extreme political positions. But in arguing for its positions, Food & Water Watch should at least maintain the decency to not smear the private sector with false and misleading claims.

For instance, I would be remiss not to address the claims Ms. Hauter made about Flint, Mich.  Food & Water Watch is so quick to try to take advantage of the extremely unfortunate situation in Flint and use it as a rallying cry for its cause. But again, the facts on the ground do not support the lesson Ms. Hauter is attempting to profess.  

Here are the facts. Flint’s water system has been under public control for decades, lacking investment and operational expertise. This ultimately resulted in dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water delivered to homes. Blaming Veolia for the tragedy in Flint is unfounded with zero supporting facts.

Ms. Hauter is on point when she talks about the dangerous consequences of deteriorating water infrastructure. NAWC’s members share a core belief that by harnessing the powerful combination of public service and private enterprise, we can improve our nation’s water infrastructure and ensure future generations continue to have access to safe, reliable and high quality water service. Federal funds alone will not bridge the growing investment gap so it’s critical that all sources of capital and expertise, public and private, collaborate to invest in water infrastructure.

But in her piece, Ms. Hauter puts forward not a single concrete policy proposal to achieve the goals she lays out. The only thing she says is “no” to any private sector involvement. On the other hand, academics, think tanks, and elected officials on the right and left, including former President Obama, agree that private sector involvement is critical to filling the infrastructure investment gap and addressing our biggest water infrastructure challenges.

The public and private sectors can and must work together. No one is going to be able to fill this investment gap on their own. But what is certain is that our challenges will not be addressed by demonizing the private sector.

Michael Deane is executive director of the National Association of Water Companies.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Construction Development Government Infrastructure Public sphere Public–private partnership Structure Water industry
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