Why not Water?

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies and the Water Infrastructure Network foresee a grim future, unless the federal government commits to developing a long-term, sustainable funding source for core water and wastewater infrastructure

More than 30 years have passed since the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972. In honor of the Act's 30th anniversary, President George W. Bush dubbed 2003 the "Year of Clean Water." Organizations and individuals involved in clean water issues have rightly employed this occasion to trumpet the progress the United States has made in water quality over the past few decades. Yet this progress, simply put, is in peril. Americans cannot continue to take the most basic natural resource -- clean and safe water -- for granted. What is out of sight -- our water and wastewater pipes and systems -- can no longer remain out of mind.

Congress has already proven itself capable of the vision and bipartisanship necessary to create long-term, sustainable funding sources for the nation's highways and aviation infrastructure. Unless Congress and the White House display the same vision on behalf of the nation's clean and safe water infrastructure, the nation will be faced with a public health and environmental crisis that could have been prevented by early investment.

Despite a historic consensus reached by the federal government over the past year regarding a massive clean and safe water infrastructure shortfall in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the federal government continues to bury its collective head in the sand in the vain hope that the issue will miraculously take care of itself. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) pivotal report, The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis, issued late last year, documents a startling water and wastewater infrastructure funding gap of as much as $600 billion. The Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office issued reports echoing EPA figures. These reports are available at www.win-water.org.

Filling the Water Funding Gap
Significantly, these reports make one fundamental fact clear -- there is no longer a question that a massive funding gap exists and that the national focus has now shifted to the more critical question of how to close the clean and safe water funding gap. There is only one viable solution: The federal government must commit to developing a long-term, sustainable funding source for core water and wastewater infrastructure. If pavement and landing strips merit such attention, can there be any doubt that clean and safe water demand equal treatment? Americans nationwide should be asking their local and national elected officials one question: Why not water?

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), the largest association of publicly owned wastewater treatment works in the country, can attest to the fact that the municipal budgets are overburdened by an economic downturn, the out-of-control costs required to comply with an endless stream of unfunded EPA regulations (especially in the wet weather arena), increasing security demands and expenses in the wake of September 11, 2001, and an ever-expanding debt burden in order to meet these expanding needs.

Municipal officials are stuck between a budgetary rock and a hard place, often forced to 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 and Safe Drinking Water Acts. Whatever priorities municipal officials choose to implement, something is left undone that must subsequently be factored into future budgets at a higher cost, adding to the cycle of an expanding funding shortfall.

Despite their own estimates and collected evidence, many in Congress and the Bush administration continue to assert that the nation's water infrastructure is strictly a municipal issue, taking extraordinary pains to ignore the interstate nature of clean and safe water issues and the daily affects on virtually every American. Amazingly, EPA and some in Congress continue to assert that the state revolving loan funds (SRF) and annual utility rate hikes will cover the half a trillion dollar need. This conclusion is preposterous and defies the facts. AMSA's 2002 Financial Survey, released in February 2003, surveys member treatment works and demonstrates that only 20 percent of survey respondents even used the Clean Water SRF in 2001. It also shows that in the past 15 years public wastewater utilities have raised rates on average over two percent annually above the rate of inflation. In short, municipalities are already doing everything in their power to ensure the viability of their drinking water and wastewater treatment utilities. The needs are simply too staggering for the types of simplistic "solutions" put forth to date by the federal government.

This begs the question then of what the federal government is doing to ensure Americans have clean and safe water. The answer unfortunately, is they are trying to side step the issue. Municipal officials have been facing 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. By 1994, it fell to nearly $3 billion and continues on a downward trend, falling to well below 10 percent of total water infrastructure investment and most of that in the form of loans.

This decline in federal investment becomes even more perplexing when one considers the economic value America's clean and safe water systems create across nearly every sector of the economy and every region of the country. The Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) is a broad-based coalition of local elected officials, drinking water and wastewater service providers, state environmental and health administrators, engineers, labor organizations and environmentalists seeking to protect the health and environmental gains of America's drinking water and wastewater. In its report, Water Infrastructure NOW: Recommendations for Clean and Safe Water in the 21st Century, WIN estimates the following industries rely entirely on a clean and safe water supply: $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.

Raising Infrastructure Awareness
Over the past two years, AMSA and WIN representatives have met with many federal officials to raise awareness of the infrastructure challenges the nation faces and the dire public health and environmental consequences of federal inaction. Thanks in large part to the efforts of WIN and AMSA, slow but steady progress is being made to educate the public and elected leaders on the clean and safe water legislation. The 108th Congress has already introduced legislation that would modestly increase grant and loan levels for clean and safe water infrastructure. But these bills simply do not recognize the breadth of the problem and fail to go far enough. Again, only a long-term, core infrastructure funding source can ultimately solve the current funding gap and preserve the nation's clean and safe water infrastructure for generations to come -- just as has been accomplished for highways.

To increase awareness in Congress, the public and the media regarding the infrastructure funding shortfall, AMSA recently formed the Water Infrastructure Funding Task Force comprised of AMSA member public utilities. The Task Force believes that as Americans slowly but steadily become aware of the fragile state of their precious clean and safe water resources and voice their concerns to their local and federal elected officials, Congress and the White House will seize this opportunity to create a long-term, sustainable fund to ensure clean and safe water for future generations.


This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Ken Kirk is the executive director of NACWA, formerly known as the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), since 1990. From 1978 to 1990, he worked with a Washington, D.C.-based private consulting firm where he had responsibility for the management of several associations, including AMSA. From 1973 to 1975, Kirk worked in EPA's Office of Legislation, and from 1975 to 1977 he served as public affairs manager at the organization now known as the Water Environment Federation. Kirk has degrees from New York University, the Georgetown University Law Center, and the George Washington University Law Center, where his specialty was environmental law. He is a member of the District of Columbia bar. In June of 1996, he Kirk was designated Certified Association Executive (CAE), the highest honor of professional achievement available from the American Society of Association Executives. Kirk also serves as chair of the Water Infrastructure Network, a broad-based coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the health, environmental, and economic gains that America's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure provide.