PUBLIC WORKS/Locals hope bill boosts water infrastructure
First, there was TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act, which helped rebuild the nation’s road system. Hot on its heels, AIR-21 provided the push for the updating of the country’s airports. Now, Water-21 may do the same for U.S. water and wastewater systems.
“Water-21 will be a priority in the next Congress,” says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R – N.Y.), who is planning to introduce the legislation next year. (Boehlert was favored in his bid for re-election this month.) “The time for the federal government to step up to the plate on water infrastructure funding is rapidly approaching.”
Boehlert, who co-chairs the House Water Infrastructure Caucus and chairs the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, promised a bipartisan effort on behalf of Water-21. “The message of renewed federal investment in water infrastructure resonates with members on both sides of the aisle,” Boehlert says. He notes that, since its founding by himself, Republican Michael Bilirakis of Florida and Democrats Robert Borski of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the Water Infrastructure Caucus has grown to 70 members. “Success in the environmental and infrastructure arenas has always been characterized by broad bipartisan support.”
Water-21 would address the $23 billion annual gap in water infrastructure funding (between current investment and what will be needed annually over the next 20 years to replace aging and failing pipes and meet the mandates of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts). Of that amount, infrastructure spending for wastewater systems accounts for $12 billion.
The Water Infrastructure Network (WIN), a coalition of water and wastewater agencies, state and local government officials, engineers and environmentalists, says that, without federal help, efforts to rebuild the country’s water infrastructure are doomed to failure. Local government efforts to finance the full $23 billion would mean a doubling or tripling of utility rates nationwide. Those increases would result in at least a third of the country’s population paying more than 4 percent of its household income for water and sewer services. Small and rural communities would be hit hardest.
According to WIN, local government budgets would be hard-pressed to accommodate that kind of an investment. In its April report, “Clean and Safe Water for the 21st Century,” the group points out that “the level of investment [needed] would be unprecedented and would face significant competition within local budgets from operating and maintenance costs that are escalating by 6 percent a year above the rate of inflation.”
The report also notes that federal contributions to the maintenance of the U.S. water infrastructure have declined by 75 percent in real terms since 1980 and currently represent about 10 percent of total capital outlays for water and wastewater infrastructure and less than 5 percent of total water and wastewater outlays. It points out that almost $2 trillion will be needed over the next 20 years for building, operating and maintaining the necessary drinking water and wastewater facilities – $45 billion of that for wastewater systems.
“Our nation is facing a water infrastructure crisis that poses challenges to communities in every congressional district in the country,” Boehlert says. “Every day there are reports of failures in aging water infrastructure. In my congressional district, a wastewater treatment facility in Oneida failed, dumping 50,000 gallons of sewage into Oneida Lake and closing a beach resort for Labor Day weekend.”
WIN members are solidly behind the Water-21 legislation. “In the United States, we are fortunate to have ready access to clean water and safe drinking water,” says Al Goodman, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation. “However, protecting our precious water resources requires a continuing investment.”