Investing in Water Infrastructure: It Makes Sense (and Cents, Too!)

Dec 29, 2020

Our water systems are an integral part of everyday life. A simple act like washing the dishes or pouring a glass of water depends upon an intricate system of underground pipes we rarely get to see. Like other things hidden from view, our water pipes are often “out of sight, out of mind.”

There are approximately 800,000 miles of wastewater pipes in the U.S., many of which were built soon after WWII and have exceeded their 50-year design life. The time is now to fund the local and national water infrastructure which is so critical to our daily lives. There are numerous benefits associated with doing so - and many risks if we choose not to.

Nationally, our clean water infrastructure has received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 infrastructure report card, and the U.S. EPA calculates national investment needs just to fully comply with the Clean Water Act under current conditions at approximately $271 billion over the next 20 years. While federal contributions to transportation infrastructure have stayed constant at approximately half of total transportation capital spending, federal investment in water infrastructure has declined from 63% to 9% of total capital spending since 1977. Today, more than 90% of all investments in water and wastewater in our country come from ratepayers.

Investing in water infrastructure allows communities to plan ahead for changing environmental conditions and maintain a high quality of life for residents. The modernization of wastewater infrastructure could reveal numerous innovative and sustainable approaches to water recovery, including opportunities to produce energy from methane gas.

In addition to supporting public health and safety, investments in water infrastructure are also supportive of the growing “water workforce.” The Brookings Institution report, Renewing the Water Workforce, estimates the entire water sector employs 1.7 million people. This accounts for utility staff, consultants, manufacturing and other jobs directly associated with the water sector. By increasing opportunities for water professionals, we can increase the number of "green" careers in our local communities.

The federal government can be an important partner in keeping clean water flowing for years to come. We should not have to risk falling behind on the progress that was made several decades ago under the Clean Water Act due to a lack of federal investment. And as we face continuing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of good public health becomes even more apparent.

It has been over 50 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. As a nation, we continue to benefit from this Act which made the protection of our waters a priority. We are fortunate to have the drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems that currently serve us. Without them, we would not have the economic and public health benefits we currently enjoy.

Funding the repair and maintenance of these systems and supporting a strong, modern water infrastructure network for future generations is a widely-held position by many Americans. In a recent poll by the Value of Water Campaign, 78% of respondents said it’s “extremely or very important” that the President and Congress develop a plan to rebuild America’s water infrastructure. 

The role that our water infrastructure systems play in maintaining public health, hygiene and safety has never been more apparent. To meet the challenges of years to come, federal leaders must commit to the value of water and support a diverse array of sustainable water solutions.