A recent national poll from the Value of Water Coalition found that the public is concerned with the state of clean water infrastructure in this country. Despite that concern, respondents were evenly split when asked if they would be willing to pay more to improve and modernize water infrastructure. (Nearly half were willing to pay more with an equal percentage believing that they pay enough.) However, after receiving additional information about issues concerning clean and affordable drinking water, safe and environmentally responsible wastewater treatment, and the need to protect public health, people are willing to pay more to invest in improving their water service (60% willing to pay more with only 35% believing they pay enough).
This survey points to the fact that the public may not understand how hard water and wastewater professionals work to streamline operations, leverage new technology for labor force optimization, conduct long-term planning, and respond to emergencies. Despite the efficiencies we create and the state of preparedness we work every day to maintain, more needs to be done to help the public understand the obstacles utilities confront. I recently shared this with my colleagues in the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) in the Connecticut state director report highlighting the importance of adequately financing utilities and how it is often lost on the public at-large. When fiscal sustainability is not satisfied, utilities will face incredible challenges. Consider the situation in Flint, Michigan.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Flint was a growing city with jobs supporting a thriving automotive industry. As the automotive economy changed quickly in the 1980s and beyond, the City saw a rapid population decline, driving Flint from being ranked in the top 50 most populous cities in the nation to now sitting outside of the top 300. As the economy and population tanked, Flint faced an economic crisis that could bankrupt the City. Flint entered into a state of receivership that forced the City into a much different decision-making routine where short-term savings became more important than long-term value. Much can be written about how Flint arrived at its crisis (and a good place to read an overview is here and in more detail here), but suffice it to say that the City now has the burden of restoring its water system and providing restitution to its residents, which will cost many millions of dollars.
Utilities that are not fiscally resilient nor financially proactive will face similar repercussions. We can take away many lessons from the unfortunate situation in Flint, Michigan, but one of note is that making fiscally responsible long-term decisions like having an ample capital reserve, a proactive asset management program, and being aggressive around climate adaptation is an effective means to being a truly resilient utility. Thoughtful technical and financial planning will serve utilities well to avoid short-term miscues.
It is possible that public attitudes will change because of the situation in Flint. When asked about the Flint crisis, the Coalition found that 95% of respondents believed that it was “important or very important that the infrastructure be improved and modernized” so that other communities would not endure what happened in Michigan. A few weeks ago, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker and Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. (all legislators from New Jersey) outlined the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Investment Act of 2016, which they will introduce in both houses of Congress to address challenges to funding improvements to our nation’s aging water infrastructure. Senators Menendez and Pascrell have introduced the legislation previously, but they are hoping that public and political sentiment has changed. In addition, U.S. Congressmen Paul Tonko (New York) and Frank Pallone (New Jersey) unveiled the Assistance, Quality, and Affordability Act (AQUA), which would reauthorize the Safe Drinking Water Act, increase expenditures to $3.13 billion in 2017, and increase funding 15% each year through 2021.
This potential funding increase will come in a time of high need. According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), much of the estimated 1.2 million miles of distribution pipes that supply Americans with drinking water are nearing or have past retirement age, which will cost as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades to replace.
We can do more to educate legislators, municipal planners, and the public about the increasing need to invest in water and wastewater systems. As Radhika Fox, director of the Value of Water Coalition and CEO of the US Water Alliance noted, “This is a critical time and important opportunity to have a conversation across the country about the importance of investing in our water systems.... As a nation, we must prioritize investment in our water systems—to maintain high-quality water service today and for future generations.”