In the United States, a water main breaks at least every two minutes. As our nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure ages, the gap between spending and necessary funding for repairs is growing. With the infrastructure funding gap currently at $81 billion, this is an issue that can no longer be ignored.
That’s the message of The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure: How a Failure to Act Would Affect the US Economic Recovery, a new report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Value of Water Campaign. Released against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic, the report calls for major increases in government spending to ensure public health and bolster economic recovery efforts.
“Millions of Americans all around the country are really struggling with this dual crisis of COVID-19 and the worst economic crisis that I have certainly seen in my lifetime,” Chief Executive Officer of the US Water Alliance Radhika Fox said during a press conference. “Elected officials are thinking hard [about] what are the best ways to jump start our economy, to jump start growth and to help put people back to work. In that context, the findings of the report … really illustrate that the investment of water infrastructure is one of the best bets that we can make as a nation.”
The study outlines 10- and 20-year projections from econometric models of two future scenarios: one where current investment trends continue, and one where all investment needs for infrastructure are met. What these scenarios show is that appropriate funding for water infrastructure projects has benefits that ripple throughout the economy, touching aspects of nearly all industries — like mining, manufacturing, and health care — that rely on water and wastewater services to function.
“If we fail to act, there [could] be staggering economic losses to GDP, jobs, wages, and increased costs to American families,” Katie Henderson, a senior program manager with the US Water Alliance, said.
If funding needs and infrastructure investment trends continue at current levels, the annual funding gap will grow to $136 billion by 2039. In fact, the U.S. would need to invest a total of $109 billion per year in water infrastructure over the next 20 years in 2019 dollars to close this gap, the report continued.
At a time when our country is struggling, the financial challenges facing water and wastewater utilities will continue to grow due to the revenue losses and increased operational costs incurred during the coronavirus response. According to industry experts, our nation’s drinking water and wastewater utilities will start FY 2021 anywhere from $13.9 billion to $16.8 billion in debt, making the infrastructure picture even more bleak.
“The COVID-19 pandemic only intensifies the need to act and invest across all levels of government. Failing to act now will lead the country into a prolonged era of economic and public health vulnerability,” the report states.
So, what can we do about this issue?
Advocating for investment in infrastructure is important work, and it starts in our own communities. Managing demand through conservation, water recycling, and addressing non-revenue water loss can help extend the life of current systems and should be practiced by water utilities whenever possible. Citizens can turn off taps when brushing their teeth, plant water-wise gardens and lawns, and work with local government to increase awareness of these issues and bolster funding for projects in their community. Finally, with the November elections coming up, we can all use our votes to tell our local, state and federal leaders that water infrastructure is important, vital, and essential to public health and our way of life. I hope you’ll join me in this effort, and as always, thanks for reading.