Water infrastructure needs to be at the forefront of the Biden administration and Congressional agendas. And not just because of aging pipes, but because our nation’s water quality, water resources, and human health are at increasing risk because of our own inaction and chronic underinvestment. Safe drinking water from every household tap is an incredible, often overlooked achievement, but only as long as it continues to flow.
According to the newly released Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Drinking Water, Wastewater, and Stormwater sectors received grades of C-, D+, and D, respectively. These below-average scores warn of a growing reliance on historical engineering and policy advancements, instead of a view to the future.
For more than a hundred years, we have benefited from the complex array of network infrastructure hidden from view—mostly out of sight, out of mind. But with every passing day, month, and year of avoidance, the challenge to maintain nearly four million miles of aging pipe networks and 75,000 treatment facilities escalates.
Policymakers have effectively been kicking the water can down the road, which is evidenced by Congressional Budget Office data. Federal spending on water utilities has fallen to an almost fifty-year low and has been passed off to a disparate group of financially strapped state & local authorities. More recent analysis of COVID-related impacts on local utility budgets suggests that financial headwinds remain strong, potentially undermining much-needed capital investments.
Look no further than Texas, where the fragility of our nation’s water infrastructure network, let alone those of power and gas, left 14.4 million people without access to basic water and wastewater services for as many as two weeks. The U.S., alone, has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters exceeding US$1 billion in costs since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What happened in Texas was not a 100-year event but rather a ten-year event. No further back than 2011, the state experienced blackouts because of freezing temperatures that led to critical infrastructure shutdowns.
In many respects, we have demonstrated the value and benefits of water through monumental achievements. From the first sewage treatment plants in Chicago and Brooklyn, New York in the 1850s to the Clean Water Act in 1972, few, if any, accomplishments have had more positive impacts on our nation’s history. Unfortunately, a half-century has passed since the last great milestone for water.
The world around us is becoming more technologically complex and interconnected, exposing new risks for water facility operators. Earlier this year, a water utility serving 15,000 people in Florida experienced a cybersecurity breach, through which hackers attempted to increase the amount of sodium hydroxide—a chemical used in the treatment process—to 100 times the normal level. This cyberattack is notably different from others as it was a direct hit on a public drinking water supply. With over 40,000 drinking water systems serving communities of less than 3,300 people, many of which are in rural areas, strong federal leadership is needed to help bridge the yawning technology, funding, and resource gaps for systems of all sizes. The focus cannot just be on large, municipal utilities.
When faith in the reliability of our water systems deteriorates, people and organizations with means will ultimately take matters into their own hands. At the forefront of this change will be commercial and industrial companies that have more financial flexibility and acute bottom-line pressures to mitigate water-related risks, including alternative supplies and onsite treatment. If a flight of larger-scale customers from volume-based water and wastewater service providers is realized, municipal and residential stakeholders will bear the burden, including increased water and wastewater rates. The result will be broader social and economic divides and greater polarization over public services.
Given that 22 March 2021 is World Water Day, I am hard-pressed to think of one product from industry to the dining room table that does not require water in one form or another. Without it, we do not succeed by any measure.
So, as we move forward into a new era, searching for solutions to address economic recovery, climate change preparedness, and improved human health, there is one thing I hope policymakers don’t forget to consider: WATER.