Why I Advocate for Water Infrastructure

Why I Advocate for Water Infrastructure

Let’s be honest. No child ever sits around dreaming about the day they grow up and become a wastewater engineer. An astronaut or a marine biologist maybe, but never the individual who designs the invisible utilities that transport our waste and clean our water. Yet, I am proud to say that I have been a wastewater engineer for two decades. It’s a fascinating career where I make a positive contribution to society. 

Last month I left my desk to travel to D.C. to take part in my first National Water Policy Fly-In as a part of the NEWEA Congressional Briefing during Water Week 2017. Once I arrived, I joined representatives from WEF, NACWA, AWWA, WE&RF and other organizations to advocate on behalf of the water industry. We talked to our congressional representatives about the need for increased water infrastructure (water, wastewater, stormwater, reuse water) funding, more specifically calling for:

  • Increased funding for the State Revolving Fund (SRF) program
  • Funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act (WIFIA)
  • Continuation of tax exempt status for municipal bonds to finance clean water infrastructure 

The representatives from New England we spoke with enthusiastically support these requests, but also explained that it was unlikely that funding for water infrastructure would be increased to adequately bridge the gap between current funding and needs.  At the time of our meetings, details about how the proposed budget, tax reform, and the contours of a proposed $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan would develop were still unknown.  Despite this uncertainly, I came away from the meetings with a new appreciation for the process of advocacy and wanted to share a few major takeaways about the forecast of the water and wastewater industry and what we are doing to change it. 

Advocating for water infrastructure with Congressman Joe Courtney from Connecticut's Second District 

Proposed Budget Falls Short of Need

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2017 infrastructure report card on our nation’s infrastructure.  The current letter grade assigned to our water and wastewater infrastructure is a D.  In early April, the cover story in Time Magazine cited ASCE’s report and the $105 billion funding gap (2016-2025) for water and wastewater infrastructure.  This capital funding is needed to fix infrastructure that was built in the twentieth century and is old and failing.

These are big numbers requiring a substantial commitment to raise the grade of our water and wastewater infrastructure.  Yet with the new administration’s proposed budget, it appears that support for these services may be shrinking, rather than expanding.  The budget proposal was released in mid-March before I came to D.C., and although it is not final, it did raise concerns about the future funding available for water and wastewater projects. While the proposed budget maintained a commitment to the State Revolving Funding (SRF) program, the proposed funding falls short of what is needed to repair and maintain our water infrastructure.  In addition, funding for other critical programs that offer grants like the USDA Rural Development Program and Community Block Grants was eliminated.  

What is the Value of Water?

One of the signs I saw during Water Week in D.C. said “Water = Life.”  That succinctly sums up its importance to our communities.  Water and wastewater systems are responsible for protecting public health, supporting our communities, and growing our economy.

Coincident with Water Week, the Value of Water Campaign released a new report titled The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure.  The report cited statistics including every $1 invested in water infrastructure increases long-term GDP by over $6, and $1 million investment in water results in 6.1 direct jobs and 9.4 indirect and induced jobs, which are comparable levels to public investments in energy, healthcare, and transportation.

The report also makes the case that the lack of water infrastructure funding can be costly too. Imagine your town invested in a brand-new roadway, but months after the project is complete, a water main breaks beneath it and destroys the road. This is not a farfetched example. The American Water Works Association estimates that one-third of water mains nationwide will require replacement by 2040 and there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks every year. The Value of Water Campaign determined that an eight-day national disruption in water service would amount to a one percent loss in annual GDP – putting roughly 1.9 million jobs at risk.  

Access to clean water and reliable sanitary waste services is one of the basic building blocks of a community, and if we don’t maintain our water and wastewater utilities we could be compromising other infrastructure investments as well. Water infrastructure needs to be part of the conversation and included in infrastructure funding programs.

Making a Case for Water Infrastructure

Personally, I am committed to being more vocal about what it means to have water and wastewater service so that people understand the value of water. Reports like ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card and the Value of Water Campaign’s new study begin the conversation, and we need to be carrying these messages to our clients and to the communities we serve every day. 

This sentiment is echoed by many of my colleagues at Woodard & Curran. Earlier this month, Barry Sheff made a similar trip to D.C with the American Public Works Association and we recently heard from Pat O’Hara about the ACEC Energy and Environment Committee Meeting he attended in February. Across the firm we are stepping up to become better advocates for our clients.  

The onus is on us to continue to innovate. We, as engineers, need to be looking for new ways to deliver our water services in the most reliable, sustainable, cost-effective ways possible.  As I read the article in Time Magazine on infrastructure I found myself nodding in agreement to the following statement:

"So the next Hoover Dam is no dam at all.  It’s technology, innovation, efficiency.  Take a look at Singapore – one of the world’s infrastructure leaders, according to Germany’s respected Kiel Institute for the World Economy.  Using the technology pioneered in Orange County, the island nation has replaced 40% of its freshwater consumption with recycled NEWater, as they call it.  Infrastructure is shrinking even as it grows more powerful.”

Water infrastructure can no longer be invisible to our communities.  I will continue to advocate passionately for water in the hope that children will dream about becoming wastewater engineers, too.

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Senior Technical Leader
Municipal Wastewater

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