Water Infrastructure: Drowning in Red Tape

The fluid most on the minds of stakeholders currently dealing with the future of the U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure appears to be not water, but rather red ink.

According to Adam Krantz, managing director of governmental & public affairs with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), over the past 20 years U.S. communities have spent more than $1 trillion (in 2001 dollars) on drinking water treatment and supply and wastewater treatment and disposal. However, the infrastructure that provides us with drinking water and treats our wastewater is aging. Much of it was constructed in the period following World War II and will be reaching the end of its useful life in the next 20 to 40 years.

Krantz points out that, as a nation, we will be challenged to ensure that we can keep pace with the infrastructure needs of the future. The Bush administration's position is that utilities and their local communities must provide the primary sources of funding to meet those needs. While federal and state funding can help water utilities meet future needs, other strategies may be appropriate for addressing the challenges we face in maintaining our nation's water infrastructure.

In September 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report entitled ?The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis,? in which it estimated the funding gap over the next 20 years would be a staggering $535 billion. This amount is the agency?s estimate of what it would cost over the next two decades for upgrades and operation and maintenance of wastewater and drinking water treatment systems. The U.S. Congress typically appropriates about $2.1 billion annually for wastewater and drinking water state revolving funds (SRFs) that are used to pay for infrastructure improvements and other programs. These SRFs also emphasize providing funds to small and disadvantaged communities. EPA's report is available at www.gov.safewater/gapreport.pdf.

In January 2003, EPA held a forum aimed at discussing options that could be used to close the funding gap without requiring a large funding increase from the federal government. Rate increases, more efficient water use, better asset management, focusing more on the watershed approach, and exploring the possibility of privatizing some areas of operations were suggested as possible solutions. The question of privatization can be a sensitive topic, however, especially to representatives of public utilities who argue that unless it is done carefully, the outcome would be higher rates and less accountability with no guarantee of improvement in service or efficiency. On the flip side, representatives of privately owned utilities emphasize that they are able to conduct a more efficient operation than public utilities, which ultimately can mean lower costs and more opportunities for innovations.

NACWA takes exception to the Bush administration's position that the solution to the clean water and drinking water infrastructure-funding gap rests solely on local government. NACWA?s position is that other critical U.S. infrastructure sectors, such as highways and airports, receive the benefits of dedicated federal trust funds, and it is time for the nation?s water to receive equal treatment. NACWA's conclusion is that while municipalities must continue to do their part concerning water infrastructure funding, so too must the states and the federal government by implementing a long-term sustainable financing program to invest in the U.S. clean water and drinking water infrastructure. To learn more about NACWA and its positions, visit its Web site at www.nacwa.org.

Apparently, many people share NACWA's view that the federal government should implement a long term trust fund for clean water. In March 2005, Luntz Research, Inc. and Penn, Shoen & Berland Associates Inc., conducted a bipartisan national survey and found 85 percent of Americans say that if there was a bill in the U.S. Congress to create a dedicated reliable trust fund to protect and guarantee clean and safe water, they would support it.

Clean and safe water is of paramount importance to this nation -- both to the continued well being of our citizens and our economy -- and should be funded accordingly. Congress needs to demonstrate leadership this session by increasing the budget allocation for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure funding to prevent a future crisis involving clean water shortages.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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