Infrastructure Week Challenge: Let’s work together to find solutions
By: Michael Deane
Executive Director, National Association of Water Companies
In case you missed it, this week is Infrastructure Week. Each year, those interested in infrastructure issues – from water and roads to ports and airports – use this week as an opportunity to talk about how much infrastructure investment is needed and what must be done to bring our infrastructure into the 21st Century. Yet infrastructure is so critically important to the economic and social health of our country that it is vital that we talk about it all year round, not just one week out of the year.
In fact, in March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its updated 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, and as expected, the results weren’t pretty. ASCE found that over the past four years, we have made little to no progress in bringing our infrastructure up to snuff – from roads and bridges to water pipes and dams. Our drinking water and wastewater systems were awarded D and D+ grades respectively, and our nation’s overall infrastructure was given a grade barely above failing.
While it is unfortunate that we haven’t made measurable progress over the past four years, it is not surprising. One only needs to look at the 240,000 water main breaks that occur in the U.S. every year, resulting in the loss of two trillion gallons of treated water to see that our water infrastructure is crumbling. Almost one-quarter of our nation’s water pipes are over fifty years old, and the U.S. EPA estimates that $650 billion in capital will be needed over the next decade to upgrade pipes, storage facilities and other assets for drinking and wastewater systems.
From Flint, Mich., to Los Angeles, Calif., and hundreds of other communities, the crumbling water infrastructure is a threat to the nation’s quality of life and economic growth. The continued deterioration of our water systems could lead to increased service disruptions, more barriers to emergency response, impacts to other public infrastructure, as well as threats to public health.
It is time we get serious about investment. It is time that we stop trying to make this into a public versus private issue, as groups like Food & Water Watch and Corporate Accountability International are fond to do, and recognize that a challenge this large can only be addressed with smart solutions that encompass the best of what all sectors have to offer.
Let’s talk about solutions. It is undeniable that working with a professional water management company is one proven solution to water infrastructure challenges. Today in America, 73 million people – or about one-quarter of the population – are served by a private water company. In fact, over the past fifteen years, public-private partnership contracts were renewed within the industry at a rate of almost 97%. That goes to show that communities that decide to partner with a private water company are overwhelmingly satisfied with these partnerships.
Another obvious solution is to increase revenue for investment. We can no longer delay investment in our water systems, sacrificing long-term infrastructure security for the sake of not having to make difficult decisions about water rates. Yes, discussions around taxes, fees and rates can be politically charged. However, decisionmakers must find the political will to set water rates at the appropriate level to ensure necessary investments can be made to ensure the sustainability of these critical systems.
But unlike Food & Water Watch and similar groups, who argue for government-only solutions, I am not going to claim that the private sector is the only answer, solving all of our nation’s challenges alone. I sure wish Food & Water Watch could be as intellectually honest to admit a government-only solution is simply not a viable option, given our immense infrastructure challenges and the capital required.
I agree with Food & Water Watch that real federal dollars need to be allocated to infrastructure investment. But the private sector should play a larger part. In fact, the six largest U.S. private water companies alone invest nearly $2.7 billion annually to improve community water systems across the country.
The task at hand is way too important to let it get bogged down in a petty ideological fight. This Infrastructure Week, I would like to issue a challenge to Food & Water Watch, Corporate Accountability International and any other group opposed to private sector involvement. Let’s work together to find solutions – real, viable solutions, not made-up notions of mythical pots of federal money – to ensure that when the ASCE releases its next report card, our infrastructure will receive a better grade than it has today.