For Clean Water, We Need to Invest in Infrastructure

As one of my NRDC colleagues mentioned on Monday, this week is Infrastructure Week – a national event that uses education and advocacy to elevate infrastructure as a critical issue affecting all Americans.

A lot of folks think about bridges and roads when they hear the word “infrastructure,” but one of the most important kinds of infrastructure exists largely underground and out-of-sight. The pipes and facilities that bring clean water to our homes, and carry away runoff and waste, are essential to the functioning of our communities—but too often they’re overlooked in conversations about infrastructure investments.

Water infrastructure directly affects our public health. When it’s working properly, it provides us with safe drinking water and limits the pollution of our local rivers and streams. On the other hand, if it’s not maintained and kept up-to-date, it can lead to contamination that can make people sick.

For example, at Monday’s Infrastructure Week kickoff briefing for Senate staff, hosted by NRDC, Dr. Laura Sullivan described how a lack of investment in water infrastructure has contributed to the ongoing crises in Flint: lead contamination and costly water leaks due to corroding pipes.

This underinvestment is degrading our ecosystems, too. Water quality downstream of urban areas is too poor to meet standards established under the Clean Water Act. For example, right here in Washington, D.C., our antiquated sewer infrastructure causes billions of gallons of raw sewage to spill into local rivers every year.

NRDC is committed to improving the amount of water infrastructure funding and how it’s used. Our water program staff are working with the broader environmental community to advance the following water infrastructure priorities:

  • We need to increase our investment in water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. EPA has identified more than $660 billion that must be invested over the next 20 years to meet current environmental protection and public health needs ($271 billion for sewage systems and stormwater, and $384 billion for drinking water). This figure doesn’t even include the additional improvements needed to make our water infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change—which could add another $448 to $944 billion to our infrastructure needs through the middle of the century. Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst in NRDC’s water program, blogged about our proposals for ways to increase water infrastructure funding here.
  • This increased funding should not come at the expense of reductions in federal funding for other environmental investments or regulatory programs. After all, water infrastructure investments are good for the economy. It’s estimated that $188.4 billion spent on water infrastructure investments over a 5-year period would yield $265 billion in economic activity and create 1.9 million jobs. Nor should this funding come at the sake of reduced environmental protections under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and other statutes.
  • We don’t want a two-tiered system in America where the wealthy get water that’s clean and safe for their families, while the less well-to-do get second-class water systems that pose risks to their health and environment. Federal water infrastructure funding should assist communities facing large gaps between their infrastructure needs and their ability to raise or repay funds from local sources. At the same time, utilities, states, and the federal government should ensure high caliber drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater services are affordable to all, by adopting low-income customer assistance programs, equitable rate structures, and strategies that reduce system-wide costs borne by all customers.
  • Water infrastructure funding should encourage natural and nature-based infrastructure solutions for water system needs—including source water protection, floodplain restoration, water use efficiency, stormwater retention and infiltration. These approaches offer wide-ranging benefits to communities.
  • Wastewater and stormwater utilities should be encouraged to use integrated planning to cost-effectively prioritize their infrastructure investments, so they can achieve prompt compliance with Clean Water Act standards designed to protect public health and the environment.
  • Funding for new water infrastructure should not include extending service in ways that facilitate sprawl development.
  • Water infrastructure investments must support projects that are designed, sited, and built with the full consideration of the future impacts of climate change and how systems will operate decades from now when the potential for drought, flooding, and other impacts is much greater than today.

If you’re interested in learning more about needed investments in water infrastructure, Larry Levine, a senior attorney in NRDC’s water program, will be testifying in a House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing about these issues tomorrow, Thursday, May 18, at 10:00am (Eastern time). Update: Larry's testimony is now posted on his blog here.

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