Group calls for US Government to help fund water infrastructure needs

An alliance of water associations, local government groups, NGOs and equipment manufacturers has stepped up its calls for the US Government to increase its role in water and wastewater infrastructure funding.

The call came as the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) released a report showing that US water and wastewater systems need another $23 billion a year to build new infrastructure, to replace pipes and to meet standards laid down by US legislation (see related story). The funding gap is made up, says the WIN report, of $11million a year for water systems work, and another $12 billion a year for wastewater systems.

Failure to introduce federal solutions – such as direct grants from the General Fund, a dedicated Clean and Safe Water Trust Fund or incentives for private investment – to address what amounts to nearly $1 trillion in needed water and wastewater investments over the next 20 years could have serious environmental, public health and economic problems, the report warns.

Despite repeated attempts to get more federal funding, WIN says it expects to succeed this time. “We’ve been able to quantify the needs better and other infrastructure sectors have had more success,” Lee Garrigan, manager of government affairs at WIN’s lynchpin organisation, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA) told edie. “We’ve already had Transport 21, Air 21, so now it’s time for Water 21 to take care of water and wastewater infrastructure needs. One of the problems for water and wastewater infrastructure needs is that we take clean water for granted. But we are now confident that with bipartisan leadership of the House Water Infrastructure Caucus we’ll be able to close the funding gap.”

The report, Clean and Safe Water for the 21st Century, estimates that the total cost of building, operating and maintaining (O&M) drinking water and wastewater facilities over the next two decades is $2 trillion. About half of this would be needed for capital investment in infrastructure, water distribution systems and wastewater collection systems.

Annually, this works out at around $95 billion a year to fund both capital and O&M costs, of which $50 billion a year will be needed for drinking water systems – an increase of $14 billion on today’s local expenditures for drinking water. The rest, $45 billion, would be needed for wastewater systems, compared to $25 billion in current local expenditures.

The WIN report points to three trends driving the rising level of needs: increasingly strict federal standards for sewage and industrial wastewater treatment and for drinking water; rising costs of technology, chemicals and energy; and previous failures to replace ageing pipes.

The problem is compounded by the fact that O&M costs – which currently compete for local funding with capital costs – are rising by six percent a year above the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, federal contributions have declined by 75% in real terms since 1980.

Local utilities cannot meet the $23 billion a year shortfall by increasing rates, the report claims, because this would result in a doubling or tripling of rates across the US. This, the report says, would bring the rates above four percent of household income, the generally recognised affordability threshold.

The report therefore argues for an increased federal role in water and wastewater infrastructure funding, and points to the fact that the Clean Water Act was introduced in 1972 to reverse a national decline in water quality. The report also points out that Congress has established federal trust funds for other basic infrastructure systems, such as transport.

Failure to introduce federal solutions, the report says, could lead to a decline in water quality across the US, damage the recreation, tourism and fishing industries, reduce property values in areas close to waterways, and lead to rising health care costs, absenteeism and reductions in supplies of pure water for industrial processes.

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