The Water Infrastructure Challenge

Americans take for granted safe drinking water and clean wastewater, and no one would deny that we all deserve this sense of comfort. The current condition of the nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, however, demands our immediate attention. Without decisively addressing water infrastructure funding, we cannot continue to take these essential services for granted. The challenges we face are aging treatment plants and failing systems of pipes that are essential to drinking water and wastewater quality and provide basic protection of human health and environmental protections. Absent resolute federal action, the nation will ultimately face a crisis akin to, but of greater consequence than, the energy debacle that President George W. Bush and the 107th Congress are currently confronting.

Both the energy and water infrastructure systems supply vital commodities to the nation's citizenry; however, there is no simple alternative to a clean and safe water supply. As the citizens of California found out during the past several months, the U.S. waited too long to formulate a decisive energy strategy. The country can ill-afford a similar delay in federal action for our water and wastewater infrastructure.

Absent resolute federal action, the nation will ultimately face a crisis akin to, but of greater consequence than, the energy debacle.

At the heart of the problem is a crumbling system of drinking water and sewage pipes and aging treatment plants, much of which was built in the early 1900s and some dating as far back as the 1800s. These pipes are the national equivalent to a person's heart and lungs. They are literally disintegrating from age and use, or like arteries, are clogged to the point of rupture. The nation's wastewater and drinking water systems are old, tired and lacking the necessary upgrades to continue to provide clean and safe water to citizens and businesses across the country.

The nation's core environmental and public health protections are in jeopardy, in part, because the federal contribution to water infrastructure programs has fallen dramatically during the past 15 years. Insufficient funds to repair, replace, and upgrade treatment facilities and their delivery systems are making it increasingly difficult to ensure that disease-carrying bacteria and dangerous toxins are fully extracted from our drinking water and that the effluent we return to our rivers, streams and lakes meets national water quality standards. Simply put, without significant increases in federal funding for water infrastructure repair and replacement, these facilities will soon reach the end of their useful lives.

In addition to the most basic of public health protections, America's drinking water and wastewater systems create direct economic value across nearly every sector of the economy and every region of the country. America's drinking water and wastewater systems contribute directly to the productivity of our workforce and help ensure continuous growth in the gross domestic product (GDP).

Despite the benefits, there is a disturbing shortfall in the level of investment needed to maintain and make necessary upgrades to these systems. The level of investment necessary to close the funding gap is unprecedented. An April 2000 report of the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN), a broad-based coalition of local elected officials, drinking water and wastewater service providers, state environmental and health administrators, engineers and environmentalists seeking to protect the health and environmental gains of America's drinking water and wastewater, estimates that our water and wastewater systems face a predicted funding gap of $23 billion a year between current investments in infrastructure and the investments that will be needed annually over the next 20 years to replace aging and failing pipes and meet mandates of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. WIN's second report, Water Infrastructure NOW: Recommendations for Clean and Safe Water in the 21st Century, makes it clear that the investment we have made in our water infrastructure is of great value to many industries, and includes $50 billion a year in water-based recreation products, $300 billion a year in coastal tourism, $45 billion a year in commercial fishing, and hundreds of billions of dollars in basic manufacturing.

An April 2000 report of the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) estimates that our water and wastewater systems face a predicted funding gap of $23 billion a year between current investments in infrastructure and the investments that will be needed annually over the next 20 years.

Although the funding gap for water infrastructure is substantial, when compared to what is at risk, the federal contribution required is a reasonable investment. Local and state contributions to water quality programs already account for 90 percent of spending in this area. According to the WIN report, water systems account for $11 billion a year and wastewater systems account for $12 billion a year of the water infrastructure funding gap.

As Executive Director of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), the largest association of publicly owned treatment works in the country and a WIN founding member, I see first-hand that municipal officials become frustrated in their efforts to obtain the necessary funding. Sometimes they must choose between system upgrades to meet complex, new federal regulations and pipe replacement and repair that ensures they will continue to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Whatever priorities municipal officials choose to implement, something is left undone that must, subsequently, be factored into future budgets at a higher cost.

As the graph at the beginning of the article demonstrates, these officials also face a dramatic decline in federal capital investment for water infrastructure repair and upgrades. In 1980, federal capital investment in water infrastructure was nearly $10 billion of a total investment of $18 billion, but by 1994 it fell to nearly $3 billion and continues to decline.

Over the past year, WIN has met with many federal officials to help them become more aware of the challenges being faced at the local level and the consequences of inaction. Now, thanks primarily to the efforts of WIN, local officials, once alone in their knowledge of the breadth and profound risks posed by this massive problem, have a growing network of vocal allies in dozens of associations and in local and federal government. In April 2000, Capitol Hill took notice of the urgent need for federal involvement in the infrastructure dilemma. Eighty Congressional representatives joined the battle, forming a bipartisan Water Infrastructure Caucus (WIC) in the U.S. House of Representatives, committing Congress to active involvement in finding a solution to the shortfall in water infrastructure funding. While U.S. Senate rules prohibit the formation of such caucuses, senators from both sides of the aisle have broadly supported the infrastructure funding issue, and several introduced legislation earlier this year that takes aim at several small parts of the overall funding problem.

Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated an infrastructure funding need that supports the estimates of WIN. At press time, EPA is expected to issue its water infrastructure gap analysis by early fall of 2001. AMSA members and the WIN stakeholders support EPA's efforts to quantify the problem and bring it to the nation's attention. As Americans slowly become aware of the fragile state of their precious water services, we believe that this will present EPA and the current federal administration to demonstrate a commitment to the environment. Bush can continue the path forward begun by his father by addressing this critical issue and furthering a national dialogue aimed at creating a long-term, sustainable fund to adequately finance our water infrastructure systems.

On this, the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, leadership is needed to ensure that steps are taken now to preserve and build on the dramatic progress made in improving water quality and providing safe drinking water to all of our citizens. We know if we work together, clean and safe water will once again become a national priority.

This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 10, p. 21.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

John G. Nevius, Esq., PE, is an attorney at Anderson Kill & Olick, P.C., a law firm that specializes in insurance coverage litigation on behalf of policyholders exclusively, with offices in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Newark. Nevius is a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency senior project manager/hydrogeologist, a shareholder, has practiced in Anderson Kill's New York offices for more than eight years, and is a senior consultant with Anderson Kill Insurance Services, a non-legal subsidiary of the firm. He can be reached at (212) 278.1733.

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